Saudi Arabia Olympic football coach Saad Al-Shehri must have had plenty of time to think about what happened in Japan on the plane back from Tokyo to Riyadh. While there were positives, the fact remains that the Young Falcons lost all three games.
Many will have opinions about what happened but there is one major factor that stands out. Saudi Arabia were the only team of the 16 in Japan with a squad completely made up of home-based players. This is a debate that has been had before but, in truth, there is not much of a debate. Everyone knows that this is something that needs to be addressed, and it was mentioned again by Al-Nassr president Musalli Al-Muammar.
“It was a good performance from the Greens in the Olympics but not good in terms of results,” Al-Muammar wrote on social media. “Saad Al-Shehri selected talented players, none of them play in Europe, and some of them are reserves in the local league. If we want positive results for the national teams, we should think about transferring the Saudi players to a different stage.”
Two Asian teams made the last eight without much fuss. Takefusa Kubo was the star for Japan and Lee Kang-in has been the standout for South Korea. Lee, who was named the MVP of the 2019 U-20 World Cup, joined Valencia aged 10. Kubo was at Barcelona’s youth academy at the same age. The pair have been two of the best performers at the entire tournament so far and as well as showing their talents on the pitch, they have also revealed one reason why South Korea and Japan have been at the top of the Asian football tree for years.
“Lee has an outstanding football brain and playing at a high level in Europe has helped,” said South Korea coach Kim Hak-beom. “He has a fantastic attitude and always wants to learn and improve no matter what the situation.”
Put simply, players from these East Asian nations are happy to go to Europe at a very early age. There is a solid youth development structure in both countries but the best are getting a European education at some of the continent’s top clubs. Son Heung-min is currently the biggest name in Asian football, and probably the biggest ever. It should not be forgotten however that the English Premier League star dropped out of high school at 16 and joined Hamburg’s youth academy.
Most Koreans and Japanese players who go to Europe — and Japan recently announced a World Cup qualification squad that was entirely European-based — transfer the more conventional way. They impress in the domestic leagues or at international tournaments and get the call.
Increasingly, the national team members of Korea and Japan have experience in high-profile international leagues. This helps in many ways, but it does bring more street smarts. While the Korean and Japanese Leagues, as well as the Saudi Premier League, are technically at a high level, the big leagues of Europe are more testing mentally, physically, professionally and psychologically — the environment is much more pressurised. This helps to produce players who are more street smart and possess stronger in-game management.
The fact that Saudi Arabia came back from a goal down in the second half in all three games yet still lost suggests that there is a certain naivety. The defeat against Germany was especially painful. Coming back twice to bring the game to 2-2 was commendable and when the Germans were reduced to 10 men midway through the second half, Saudi Arabia should have been able to manage the situation to take the first Olympic point in their history. Really, it should have been all three.
Yet the team switched off almost immediately and allowed a number of German attacks, one of which resulted in a goal and then defeat. A smarter approach from both coach and players was needed and had there been more international experience in the squad, it would have been easier.
International experience is not the be-all and end-all, but it is a major factor in a country’s development. The more Japanese and Koreans that go West, the more agents become involved in those countries, the better the reputation of the players becomes and the more clubs become interested. Not only that, but more players at home become inspired to follow them, and even the ones who fail to settle in Europe return as better players having faced huge challenges both on and off the pitch.
For Saudi Arabia, it only takes one or two to go to a decent European league and do reasonably well for things to change. Then agents and clubs will start to see the country as a place to look for talent. This will allow more players to go and the whole process gathers momentum. If things go well, the Kingdom could expect to reach the sweet spot that Japan looks to be in right now: Sending lots of players to play at a high level in Europe, which gives more opportunities for young talents in the domestic league, talent that is good enough to head to Europe a few years later.
That is a long way in the future, but the first steps need to be made as soon as possible. The Olympics confirmed what we already knew: There has to be a Saudi Arabian pioneer in Europe and the sooner they lead the way, the better.