Arab teams finally return to international action

It will be a different game when play resumes, (File/AFP)
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Updated 08 October 2020

Arab teams finally return to international action

  • Morocco take on Senegal and, four days later, DR Congo in Rabat
  • Morocco sits on top of Group E of qualification for the 2021 continental tournament with four points from two games and face twin clashes against the Central African Republic next month

LONDON: When Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia all won their 2021 AFCON qualifiers last November to finish 2019 on a high, none of their players could have imagined that they would have to wait 11 months to put on their shirts again.

That wait finally ends on Friday as the North African trio return to the pitch in a series of eagerly-awaited friendlies that will serve as warm-ups for the resumption of qualification in November.

Morocco take on Senegal and, four days later, DR Congo in Rabat, although preparations for coach Vahid Halilhodzic have not been free from the effects of coronavirus. Ajax stopped Noussair Mazraoui and Zakaria Labyad from joining up with The Atlas Lions due to the fact they would be subject to a 14-day quarantine on their return to Amsterdam.

There is better news in that the Bosnian coach, who took Algeria to the second round at the 2014 World Cup, has taken advantage of a change in FIFA regulations to call up Munir El-Haddadi despite the fact that the Sevilla forward has played competitively for Spain. In September, the world governing body ruled that players can switch national teams if they have played no more than three senior appearances by the time they are 21.

“I have been talking to Munir for the last six months and he has spoken of his desire is to play for Morocco,” Halilhodzic, who has also summoned German-born Aymen Barkok, said.

“I have profited from this lockdown period to observe, analyse and know the players I need. They are here because they are attached to their country of origin. It is their decision without any pressure. They are Moroccans like all the other Moroccans.”

“They are serious and they want to be here and achieve something for their country.”

According to Halilhodzic, that is not the case for Abderrazak Hamdallah. The former Lille, Nantes, PSG and Rennes coach told reporters that the in-form striker, who has been banging in the goals for Saudi Arabian champions Al-Hilal and announced his retirement from international football in 2019, does not yet want to return to the national team.

“It is he who refuses to come and play,” said Halilhodzic.  “We don’t play around with the national jersey, it’s sacred. Playing for your national team is a source of pride, it is not owned by anyone, neither Hamdallah nor Vahid Halilhodzic. It belongs to all Moroccans.”

The new players will join up with stars such as Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea and Achraf Hakimi of Inter Milan. A knee Injury has interrupted the start to Ziyech’s English Premier League career and the winger has been training with a bandage. Halilhodzic hopes that he will be able to play 45 minutes.

Morocco sits on top of Group E of qualification for the 2021 continental tournament with four points from two games and face twin clashes against the Central African Republic next month.

Tunisia have six points from the opening two games and can clinch their place in the tournament with two wins over Tanzania in November. The Carthage Eagles are warming up with games against Sudan just outside the capital Tunis on Friday and then head to Austria to take on Nigeria four days later.

Since Mondher Kebaier replaced Alain Giresse as head coach in August 2019, Tunisia have won five of their seven games, losing only to Ivory Coast and drawing with Cameroon.

“Our strength lies in our team spirit,” said Kebaier. “That was apparent in our last game in the AFCON qualifiers. Despite a hand injury, Wahbi Khazri continued to play and was the one who finally scored. The same can be said about Youssef Msakni, who played although he was ill and receiving medical treatment. It’s this spirit that will make the difference in the upcoming games.”

Algeria also have two wins out of two and the African champions will secure their spot in the 2021 tournament by taking six points from Zimbabwe in November. The Fennecs warm-up with tough tests against Nigeria and Mexico which will take place in Austria and the Netherlands.

Riyad Mahrez is expected to lead Algeria against Nigeria with the 2019 African Cup of Nations semi-final between the two still fresh in the memory when the Manchester City star broke Nigerian hearts with a last-gasp free-kick.

“That is in the past,” said Mahrez. “After a year in which we haven’t played, it is important that we look to the future. We are expecting two tough games and that is exactly what we need.”

That is what all three Arabian nations need.

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

Updated 20 October 2020

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

  • Roberto Rivelino was the highest calibre of footballed to be seen coming into the Kingdom
  • Rivelino raised standards on and off the Saudi pitch, opening the door for others to follow

LONDON: He arrived in Riyadh by Concorde from Rio to be greeted by thousands of Al-Hilal fans at the airport before being whisked to his hotel by Rolls-Royce. It was quite an entrance, but then in August 1978, Roberto Rivelino was quite a player, one of the best and most famous in the world. By the time the Brazilian left Saudi Arabia three seasons later, football in the country had changed and would never be the same again.

Fans of Al-Hilal and plenty of other clubs are accustomed to these days of watching exciting foreign talent in action in the league, but few have been as famous or as influential or - to put it in simple football terms -- as good as this Brazilian legend who made almost 100 appearances for the five-time world champions. He was the first big star in a season that was the first to feature foreign players.

Just weeks before, Saudi football leaders had watched Iran become the first team from Western Asia to compete at the World Cup, but there was already a determination to bring some serious talent to a professional league that had only just started in 1976. So in came the captain of Brazil, according to the influential World Soccer magazine, the 38th best player of the 20th century. 

Here was a star who stood out alongside Pele and Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup winning team, hailed by many as the best ever. Fans in Saudi Arabia soon started to see just how good he was.

“It was almost amateur football at the time as football was really just starting there,” Rivelino said in an interview with Brazilian television in 2019, before Al-Hilal took on Rio club Flamengo at the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We trained at the same stadium in which we played the games. There were three teams in Riyadh and so we trained from 6 to 7 p.m., the next team from 7 to 8 and then the third from 8 to 9.”

The star had been part of the Brazil national team that played a friendly in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1978 World Cup when conversations had started about a possible move.

“I talked to my family and then decided to go. It was my first time to play outside Brazil and though the culture and country was very different, it was a special time for me.”

Roberto Rivelino linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. (Twitter)

Progress was already being made in a country that had at the time a population of just nine million. Rivelino enjoyed driving a Mercedes car in Saudi Arabia, owning one had been a lifelong dream, and also enjoyed the pristine condition of the artificial pitches in the country. He did, however, find the weather difficult to adapt to at first, playing with a wet cloth in his mouth to try and retain as much moisture as possible.

The Brazilian linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. It was clinched by the Brazilian in fine fashion in the penultimate game against challengers and rivals Al-Nassr. Rivelino pounced on a loose ball well outside the area and lashed home an unstoppable half-volley to score the only goal of the match. The first and only defeat of that season came in the final game with the trophy safely in the cabinet. It was joined by The King’s Cup the following year. 

“He made it look so easy but he worked hard to make it look easy,” said Limam. “At first defenders were in awe of him and that gave me opportunities but he was consistently good and gave local players a taste of what you need to be a world-class player, it is not just about talent but mentality.”

Despite often playing deep in midfield, Rivelino scored 23 goals in fewer than 60 appearances for Al-Hilal. His set-piece skill has yet to be surpassed and he even thrilled fans by scoring directly from a corner against Al-Ittihad, but there was more to it than that. For foreign players, especially in growing leagues, impact can’t be measured by statistics.

Rivelino raised standards on and off the pitch. Being the first Brazilian to play professionally in the region, he opened the door for players from the South American nation to follow and Zico, another midfield legend from the country, almost arrived. Many did come, coaches too, and they have played their part over the years.



(YouTube video)

Few though could have the impact of Rivelino.  “It was a good place to play football and I played well. I trained hard and I worked hard and it was a good time,” he reflected.

He felt that by the time he retired in 1981, he still could have done a job for a hugely-talented Brazil at the 1982 World Cup even though he was in his mid-thirties.

“They should have come to see me play but today you can play in Saudi Arabia and the national team still remember you but it was different then. 

“But I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. I gave everything to the club and the club, the players and the fans treated me with respect and Al-Hilal will always have a special place in my heart.”

The same should be the case for anyone with an interest in Saudi Arabian football. Rivelino was one of the first foreign players in the country and remains one of the best.