The road to Qatar 2022 is about to get bumpier for Saudi Arabia, but coach Herve Renard would not have it any other way.
The Kingdom kicks off its campaign for back-to-back FIFA World Cup qualifications for the first time in 16 years when it hosts Vietnam at Mrsool Park in Riyadh on Thursday before traveling to Muscat next week to face Oman.
The two encounters will kickstart a frenetic few months of action, with matches every month, except December, between now and the conclusion of the third round of Asian qualifiers in March next year.
While the packed schedule will place pressure on players and coaching staff, the Green Falcons’ French coach insists he is ready after enduring what he described as the worst 12 months of his career last year.
“The worst year of my career was 2020,” the 52-year-old told Arab News on the first day of their training camp in Riyadh, “because we only met in November for two friendly games. That’s all.
“So it was very difficult only watching the local league, because all the Saudi players are playing in this league. But it was very difficult to stay without games, without international games, so now we are getting better,” he said.
“The international level is it not like at the club (level) where you have a championship with 30 games, 34 games, 38 goals. We only have 10 games to be able to get the qualification, so we don’t want to miss any very important (points),” Renard added.
“All the games are so important. If you are missing one game, you are almost in trouble in the group, so immediately we have to be ready and we know this group will be very tough, so our focus is on Vietnam now and only on Vietnam.”
Renard took over as coach of Saudi Arabia in 2019, following on from Argentine Juan Antonio Pizzi, who oversaw their disappointing campaigns in both Russia for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, where they were embarrassed 5-0 by Russia in the opening game, and the UAE for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, where they failed to progress beyond the round of 16.
Renard, who has previous international experience with Ivory Coast and Morocco, as well as at club level in his native France with Sochaux and Lille, said he immediately saw a need to refresh the Saudi squad by bringing through a new generation of talent.
“I tried to do like I always did with my previous national teams. I tried to get ready immediately and prepare the future,” he said.
“It was very important to regenerate the squad, so today we have some players with big experience but also some very good young players. And I think this is the way to work for the national team.
“But you still need the time because the young players maybe won’t be ready immediately, but you prepare them and hopefully we have to get the qualification and to be ready for 2022.”
Renard arrived in the Kingdom during something of a purple patch for Saudi youth teams, with the under-19 side winning the AFC U-19 Championships in 2018, the Olympic team making the final of the AFC U-23 Championships last year (and performing admirably at Tokyo 2020 last month) and the under-20 side seeing off the likes of Tunisia, Senegal, Egypt and Algeria to win the recent U-20 Arab Cup in Egypt — the first time Saudi Arabia has won that competition.
“The future can be bright in this country,” he said.
“In my opinion, we have to improve to be more professional. So think about the players themselves, to prepare themselves very well, maybe better than some are doing now. But the potential is there.
“I was very impressed by the quality of the players, and I’m sure with or without me this country will get very good results in the future.”
To help achieve that, Renard would love to see young Saudi players show the courage by making the move to Europe to get greater international experience, which in turn will help the national team when it competes at international level.
“I am sure 100 percent (that players are good enough),” he said. “I think it would be a very good thing if they can do it, I would like one day to see Saudi players play for a very big team in Europe.
“(But) do you want to leave your country or do you want to stay in Saudi with your family around? This is a culture, maybe it will be difficult for the first time it happens. You need experience. You need to open your mind; it’s a completely different culture,” Renard added.
“It would be nice for them, but I have to respect their choice if they prefer to stay in Saudi.”
But this week, that will be the farthest thing from his mind. His sole focus will be ensuring his side, led by talisman Salem Al-Dawsari, overcome the talent of Nguyen Quang Hai and one of Asia’s fastest rising national teams in Vietnam.
After the year he has endured, Renard will relish the challenge.