It has been a busy year for Saudi Arabian football, but the end is in sight as the national team kicks off the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup against Jordan on Wednesday.
A young squad — apart from two 24-year-old goalkeepers, none of the players were born before 1999 — arrived in Doha on Sunday and, for those who shine in Qatar, there could be a return in 2022 as the full-strength team edges toward clinching qualification for the World Cup.
When these Green Falcons take on Jordan on Wednesday and then subsequent games against Palestine three days later and Morocco’s “A” team (one shorn of European-based stars), the likes of Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari won’t be there. Even head coach Herve Renard will be taking a back seat, as the senior boss has left the in-game duties to Laurent Bonadei. His fellow Frenchman has plenty of experience and did some good things when in charge of Paris Saint-Germain’s Under-17 and Under-19 teams.
“We will participate in the Arab Cup with young players born in 1999 and after and my assistant Laurent Bonadei will coach the team,” Renard said last week.
The team that touched down in Qatar bears some resemblance to the Under-23 side that played at the Tokyo Olympics in the summer and then qualified for the 2022 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in October and November. So the move makes sense.
“I am in constant contact with (Under-23 head coach) Saad Al-Shehri, so a large percentage of the players from the Olympic team were selected,” said Renard. “The selection was made by the technical staff of the first team and came on the basis that these players will be the pillar of the first team in the future.”
Despite his different duties, Renard will still be busy. While Bonadei will be in charge of the team during games, the big boss will take training and will be observing the matches from up in the stands. Renard sees it as a great opportunity to oversee from above without having to get involved with the minute-by-minute action of a tournament game.
Bonadei says he is ready. “I thank the Saudi Football Association and Mr. Renard for their confidence in me to lead the Green Falcons at the Arab Cup,” he said. “We will give everything we have to reach our goal and we are looking forward to the challenge and I am looking forward to the opportunity.”
There are opportunities for others. The coming weeks — there could be as many as six games if Saudi Arabia make it to the last four (there is even a third-place playoff) — offer a great chance for some players to really show the watching Renard what they can do.
The two main strikers, Abdullah Al-Hamdan and Firas Al-Buraikan, will be hoping to make a splash in Qatar. Both have appeared for the senior team without being able to make a starting spot their own. Al-Hamdan has fallen out of favor in recent months, partly because he has been getting few minutes for Al-Hilal.
Al-Buraikan was in a similar situation with Al-Nassr but a move to Al-Fateh has helped. Already this season, which is not even at the halfway point, the 21-year-old has spent more minutes on the pitch than he did in total over the previous four years with Al-Nassr. His sharpness in the domestic league has led to better performances for the Under-23 team and the senior side, with his goal in October giving Saudi Arabia a famous 1-0 win over Japan in World Cup qualification. Al-Buraikan now has the chance to enjoy a sustained run in the team and be the main man in attack. It will be fascinating to see how he deals with the pressure. The challenge for Al-Hamdan is to remind the coach what he can do and spend some extended time with the team in training.
Turki Al-Ammar in midfield is another who has a great chance to move from the fringes of the national team squad to a more central position. His form for Al-Shabab has been one of the reasons why the club have climbed from the lower reaches of the Saudi Professional League to second place. It would also be great for the league and Saudi Arabian football in general if Damac midfielder Bader Munshi were to get a chance. It has to be healthy if players from the smaller teams who are playing well get a chance with the national team.
Lifting the Arab Cup would be a fitting end to a great year for Saudi Arabian football, but just as valuable is the chance to play competitive games in a tournament setting. Those players that seize the opportunity may be returning to Qatar next November for the really big one.