Return of football during Saudi summer will be a step into the unknown

Matches are expected to resume in August - the hottest month of the year in the Kingdom. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 June 2020

Return of football during Saudi summer will be a step into the unknown

  • Matches could resume in August - the hottest month of the year in Saudi Arabia
  • All sporting activities in the Kingdom were indefinitely suspended on March 14 after the dramatic spread of the Covid-19 virus

DUBAI: The countdown for the return of the Saudi Pro League on Aug. 4 is under way as organizers continue to roll out a series of initiatives that have seen foreign players and staff return to the country and resume training safely with their Saudi colleagues.

Around the world, the almost complete halt to sporting events has slowly been reversed over the last two months with the German Bundesliga’s restart paving the way for other competitions like La Liga, the Premier League, Series A and the Champions League to be completed.  

However, with the summer weather conditions taken into account, there were genuine possibilities that the Saudi Pro League and others in the region ultimately being cancelled.

All sporting activities in the Kingdom were indefinitely suspended on March 14 after the dramatic spread of the Covid-19 virus, but as life slowly returned to normal with the easing of the nationwide lockdown, so were plans put in place to restart the SPL.

While the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League has been voided, providing no champions or relegation in the process, its Saudi counterpart initially set out a roadmap to complete the 2019-20 season starting from Aug. 20, a date that was decided upon after several meetings of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF).

However, that resumption date was later brought forward to Aug. 4 by the SAFF through a series of tweets on June 12, with the last of the eight remaining rounds of the season set to be completed on Sept. 9.

“The SAFF decided to resume all football competitions, starting from Aug. 4 and will be coordinating with the SPL to determine the dates of resuming the top flight and the first division,” SAFF said in the Arabic language statement posted on Twitter.

“The Saudi Arabia Football Federation acknowledges all the efforts of the Saudi Arabia government to face the outbreak of the COVID-19 which is a confirmation of their concern for the safety of everyone in the Kingdom.

Just how up to speed the teams will be on their return remains to be seen, but cues can be taken from other restarts around the world.

While the Bundesliga, for example, provided a series of highly technical matches after a very brief period of re-acclimatization, the English Premier League’s return has been largely lethargic, with the lack of fans and atmosphere highlighting, perhaps even contributing, to an inevitable lack of its trademark intensity on the field.

A similar lack of energy, at first at least, is likely to affect the SPL matches as well. For a start, the enforced suspension of play has been longer than any regular preseason break and it will take the players time to regain match sharpness.

Just as important will be the fact that August happens to be Saudi Arabia’s hottest month, with average temperatures reaching almost 45C. There is a reason why football is not traditionally played in the summer.

The heat and humidity will unquestionably lead to slower pace and you can expect the average number of minutes that the ball is in play to drop, despite the introduction of water breaks and increased number of substitutions.

Much will also depend on just how many of the matches have anything riding on them, unlike at the usual start of the season when teams are invariably raring to go.

When the 2019-20 season was indefinitely suspended, reigning champions Al Hilal held a six-point lead over second-placed Al Nassr. With only eight match days left, Al Adalah, Damac and Al Fateh were the three clubs stuck in the relegation places.

Teams with little to play may have an eye on next season already, and the late resolution of the current campaign will impact the start of the next one. 

Clubs will no doubt have to change traditional pre-season training practices as they prepare for the 2020-21 campaign, pending its starting dates.

For now, the clubs will continue will have to do with returning players and Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Sports Minister, has already confirmed there will be no changes to the quota of SPL clubs’ foreign players.

There will be logistical changes when SPL returns, with a possible dispensation of Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system. 

Also, in line with new FIFA directive since the resumption of competitive football after the coronavirus crisis, the Saudi Pro League will allow five substations for each team, with caveat that they are used over three intervals only, of which half-time does not count.

The decision to resume domestic football was also tied in with the rescheduling of matches for the Saudi Arabian national team.

“Based on the decision of the Ministry of Sports to return all sports activities and in line with the AFC's proposed dates for the resumption of Asian competitions and the resumption of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, we will coordinate the return of clubs to training as of June 21 in order to continue the current season based on a medical protocol and strict precautionary measures,” added the SAFF’s announcement added.

When football returns to Saudi Arabia, it will look different to what we are used to, just like it has everywhere else around the world. Nonetheless, for fans watching the action from their living rooms, it will be a hugely welcome sight, a sign that life is slowly returning to normal.


Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

Updated 03 August 2020

Mind games begin ahead of the return to Saudi football as Hilal boss Lucescu challenges Nassr coach

  • Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining
  • There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play

DUBAI: There may have been no football in Saudi Arabia for five months but the mind games are in full flow as ahead of the crucial top of the table clash in the Saudi Pro League on Wednesday, Al Hilal boss Razvan Lucescu has told Al Nassr coach Rui Vitoria that the pressure is all on him.

In the first game since March when the season was suspended due to coronavirus, Al Nassr in second, six points behind the leaders with eight games to play, can’t afford any slip-ups in the Riyadh Derby if they are to successfully defend the title they won last season.

“We are six points ahead and the opponent is under more pressure as they know they have to reduce the difference,” Lucescu told reporters at the pre-match press conference to the eagerly-awaited Riyadh Derby that will take place with no fans in the King Fahd International Stadium.

That points gap means that the smart money is still on Al Hilal to take league title number 16. Victory in this Riyadh Derby will take the three-time Asian champions nine points clear of Al Nassr with just seven games remaining.

Not only that but Al Hilal have looked to be in better shape than their challengers in recent warm-up games with a 2-2 draw with second tier side Al-Shoalah following a 4-0 win over Al Riyadh.

“We have been looking forward to this game for a long time,”  Lucescu, who took Al Hilal to the AFC Champions League title in 2019, added. “The league suspension has been long and it has not been easy but we have focused on the mental side of things and aim to return strongly.”

The Romanian has been boosted by the return to fitness of Brazilian star Carlos Eduardo who has recovered from last week’s knock. With the league’s leading goalscorer Bafetimbi Gomis signing a contract extension in July, Lucescu is in a positive frame of mind.

“We know the way they play and we know that it will be a tough game …but everyone is affected by the long pause and we all start at the same level. We are just going to take it step by step and stay focused.”

There has been good and bad news for Al Nassr as Brazilian centre-back Maicon Pereira has arrived in Riyadh from Galatasaray and has been cleared to play. The former Porto star will be needed as fellow defenders Omar Hawsawi and Abdullah Madu could miss out through injury.

While Hilal may have the points gap, in terms of the personal battles between the two coaches, Vitoria has the upper hand. The Portuguese boss has yet to lose in three meetings with his Romanian rival in big games in Europe as well as Saudi Arabia.

In a final play-off to reach the group stage of the 2018-19 UEFA Champions League, Vitoria led Benfica to a 5-2 aggregate victory over PAOK, coached by Lucescu. After a 1-1 draw in Lisbon, the Portuguese powerhouse won 4-1 in Greece.

Earlier this season, Al Nassr inflicted Al Hilal’s only loss in the league this season so far with a 2-1 win at Hilal’s King Saud International Stadium in October with Moroccan forward Abderrazak Hamdallah getting both goals.

A similar result at Al Nassr’s home on Wednesday would breathe new life into the title race. Vitoria has stressed that recent friendly games were a chance to try out tactics and give players a run-out. Losses against Al Raed and Al Fateh however have given the Portuguese boss much to think about.

At the other end of the table.  Al Ittihad are just three places of the bottom of this 16-team league and in danger of the drop. The two-time AFC Champions League winners face a game on Tuesday at mid-table Abha where victory would provide the Jeddah giants with some much-needed breathing space.

The race for third and a place in the 2021 AFC Champions League is also a fierce one. Al Wehda are currently in the driving seat and host Al Shabab while Al Ahli in fourth and just two points behind host the struggling Al Hazem. Al Faisaly, Al-Taawon and Al Raed also have an outside chance of booking a place in next year’s continental competition.

All eyes will, however, be on the top of the table clash as Hilal can take a huge step towards the title. “I am happy with how the players have returned from the suspension and I am confident in  their abilities,”said Lucescu. “All we care about is winning the next match and that will help us win the league.”