Saudi Arabia coach Khalid Al-Atawi relishing tough Japan challenge in Jakarta

Saudi Arabia coach Khalid Al-Atawi relishing tough Japan challenge in Jakarta
The Young Falcons take on Japan in the semifinal of the U-19 Asian Championships at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium. (AFC)
Updated 01 November 2018

Saudi Arabia coach Khalid Al-Atawi relishing tough Japan challenge in Jakarta

Saudi Arabia coach Khalid Al-Atawi relishing tough Japan challenge in Jakarta
  • The Young Falcons take on Japan in the semifinal of the U-19 Asian Championships at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta
  • Japan, who defeated Saudi Arabia in the final of the 2016 tournament, will once again be the opposition this evening

JAKARTA: Japan stand in the way of a Saudi Arabia team burning with desire to win an international trophy, but this new generation of Saudi youngsters are aiming to take another significant step forward on the country’s quest to become a major footballing power.
The Young Falcons take on Japan in the semifinal of the U-19 Asian Championships at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta tonight with a place in next year’s Under-20 World Cup in Poland already secured.
Defeating the talented “Samurai Blue” to earn a final against either Qatar or South Korea would be cause for celebration, but for coach Khalid Al-Atawi there is much more to come even beyond that. Saudi Arabia have been impressive with four wins from four games. And it is not just the results and performances that have won plaudits back home, but the way the team has played with spirited confidence and determination.
Six of the nine goals scored so far in the tournament have come in the final third of games in energy-sapping conditions in south-east Asia’s tropical climate.
“The players have done all that I have asked of them and they keep going until the end,” coach Al-Atawi told Arab News. “We have worked hard in training and during the games. We are growing in confidence and show that even when things sometimes don’t go our way, there is no reason why we can’t keep going.
“Every game we are improving and I believe there is more to come.”
That self-belief was on display in Monday’s quarterfinal. After taking an early lead against Australia, the Young Falcons held their nerve after conceding a second-half equalizer to run out 3-1 winners, a victory that secured a place at the U-20 World Cup in Poland next year.
“We have achieved our goal to qualify for the 2019 World Cup but this is not the end of our ambition,” Al-Atawi added. “We want to do as much as we can in this tournament and then keep progressing in the future. This is not the end.”
It has been an encouraging year for Saudi football. The senior team ended this summer’s World Cup — their first appearance on the global stage since 2006 — with a win over Egypt, their first victory since 1994.
The Saudi Pro League is booming with increased attendances and improved standards. And an inexperienced U-23 team impressed at the Asian Games in August before narrowly losing 2-1 to Japan at the quarterfinal stage.
Japan, who defeated Saudi Arabia in the final of the 2016 tournament, will once again be the opposition this evening. Japan have also won all four of their games, but the Saudis are looking forward to the challenge of taking on a team that has scored 15 goals in those four games.
“Of course we know that it will be a tough game,” Al-Atawi said. “Japan are always strong and have excellent players, but we have shown we also are strong. It should be a great game.”
Saudi Arabia’s exploits have been praised back in Riyadh too. Turki Al-Sheikh, chairman of the General Sports Authority (GSA), sent his congratulations.
Qusay bin Abdulaziz Al-Fawaz, the president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF), also heaped praise on the team.
“We are delighted that our team have qualified for the U-20 World Cup (next year),” he said.
SAFF also announced that any members of the U-19 squad who had been handed disciplinary punishments at home, for whatever reason, would have those punishments lifted.
Good wishes also came piling in from various clubs. Defending champions Al-Hilal said: “Officially we are off to Poland next year. Congratulations to Saudi Arabia and well done to those young players.”
Similar messages came from Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr and Al-Hazm.
Al-Hilal’s star striker Bafetimbi Gomis was also delighted.
“Congratulations to the U19 team and the Saudi federation for the work that has been done and in qualifying for the World Cup,” the former Lyon forward said.
“I hope that those little lions will grow up to be proud lions in the future.”
First, though, comes a tough Japan challenge. The “Samurai Blue” defeated hosts Indonesia in their quarterfinal in front of more than 60,000 fans, who turned the famed Gelora Bung Karno into a cauldron.
“It was a good experience for us and a good win,” said Japan coach Masanaga Kageyama. “Now we are focusing on Saudi Arabia. We know they are a strong team and are playing well. We will have to be at our best but we are looking forward to a good game.”