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Saudi Arabia – the ‘cardboard laughing stock’ who pulled off an all-time World Cup shock

The Athletic

A version of this article was originally published on November 21.

Saudi Arabia upset Argentina to win their World Cup opener. Direct play, a high line and pressure on Messi is how they did it.

All in all, it was a strange experience, bordering on surreal. Robbie Williams was dancing around the Luzhniki Stadium in a burgundy leopard-print suit, surrounded by giant footballs as he belted out Let Me Entertain You before Russian soprano Aida Garifullina arrived on a “firebird” float to join him for a rendition of Angels.

Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared in the VIP area and chants of “Vladimir! Vladimir” filled the arena. He welcomed the 2018 World Cup to an “open, hospitable and friendly Russia” and he spoke about football and sport “strengthening peace and mutual understanding between people”.

Hmmm. That didn’t age well.

Several countries’ leaders had stayed away in a diplomatic protest against the Russian World Cup but Putin was joined in the VIP area by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, making his first public appearance in two months.

Earlier that day, Putin and Bin Salman had shaken hands on a bilateral agreement on oil and gas, which again seems more striking four and a half years on. If FIFA president Gianni Infantino felt like a gooseberry, sitting between them at the opening ceremony, his grin belied any discomfort.


Bin Salman, Infantino and Putin at the 2018 World Cup opening ceremony (Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Then the Russian and Saudi players emerged and at last, attention shifted to the football. And within 12 minutes, Russia were 1-0 up.

The home fans were still celebrating when Putin reached across Infantino a minute later, offering Bin Salman his hand. Bin Salman responded with a theatrical handshake, as if to reinforce that earlier and rather hollow-sounding message about peace and mutual understanding. 

All evening in Moscow, the goals flowed. Russia ran out 5-0 winners and their opponents ended up humiliated. Long before the end, Bin Salman’s smile cracked.

Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Saudis’ Argentinian coach, spoke of a “feeling of shame”.

He was not alone. Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s sports authority, posted a video on Twitter, condemning the team’s performance in withering terms, saying that the players had been given every support — “We’ve been covering all their expenses for three years, hired the best coaching team and a world-class coach for them” — but that they had failed to perform even to “five per cent” of an acceptable standard. Rather ominously, he added that the players would be held accountable.

Some measure of pride was restored during a 1-0 defeat by Uruguay and in particular when Salem Al-Dawsari’s stoppage-time goal clinched a 2-1 victory over Egypt, but Saudi Arabia’s first World Cup since 2006 had been a chastening experience. It has been that way ever since their thrilling first tournament — Saeed Al-Owairan’s wonder goal and all that — at USA ’94.

🇸🇦🔥😍

26 years ago today, Saeed Al-Owairan started running midway inside his own half 💨

His run went on, and on, ending in one of the #WorldCup’s most memorable solo goals 👏@saeed_alowiran | @SaudiNT_EN | #OnThisDaypic.twitter.com/O8hMNeZLEA

— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) June 29, 2020

 

It has been a strange time for Saudi Arabian football. On one hand, there is the hyper-ambitious approach of an oil-rich nation desperate to make its presence felt on the world stage in any way possible — buying Newcastle United, at least two of its clubs making offers to Cristiano Ronaldo last summer, potentially bidding to host the 2030 World Cup to go along with so many other major sporting events. On the other hand, a struggle to replicate the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s.

For Saudi Arabia, their opening game of the 2018 World Cup rivalled the humiliation of Japan 16 years earlier. In their opening game of the 2002 World Cup, they were thrashed 8-0 by Germany before losing to Cameroon and Ireland.

One Saudi commentator declared after that tournament that the nation’s football federation (SAFF) had “spent billions of riyals so that the national team soils our reputation and makes us the laughing stock of the world. The media has fabricated cardboard stars who play without a soul, do not honour the national flag and think only of money”.

The point is that this is not a nation that is happy just to show up at the World Cup and help to make up the numbers. Far more than their neighbours and rivals Qatar, Saudi Arabia has a strong football heritage. This will be their sixth World Cup out of the last eight. The public appetite for football — domestic and international — is enormous.

“We consider ourselves a football nation,” SAFF president Yasser Almisehal tells The Athletic. “We have a very strong and big history. We won the Asian Cup in 1984, 1988 and 1996. We’ve also been runners-up three times. Locally, we have a very tough competition between our clubs. Our fans are crazy about football and they always want at least a similar result to 1994.”

Since the mid-1990s, Japan, South Korea and, at times, Iran have outperformed Saudi Arabia on the world stage. Iraq (2007) and even Qatar (2019) have won the Asian Cup more recently. By 2012, Saudi Arabia had fallen to 126th in the FIFA rankings, lower than 14 other Asian nations, including Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain  — the consequence, Almisehal says, of complacency and a lack of vision while other nations across the world began to look seriously at player development strategies in the 2000s.

The past seven or eight years have brought a sustained improvement, with a consistent FIFA ranking around 50th. But the memories of those opening games in 2002 and 2018 linger. In Russia, stage fright was felt to be part of the problem.

“The expectations were high and some maybe thought the first game (against Russia) we could easily win,” Almisehal says. “It was the opening match, a full stadium, a different environment, all the top leaders in the VIP tribune, and for all the players it was their first time playing at a World Cup. What happened was a big shock for everyone.”

Almisehal hopes it will be different this time — and now, after sailing through their qualifying campaign under French coach Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia have opened up their Qatar 2022 campaign by beating Argentina 2-1.

There is always something of an unknown quantity to Saudi Arabia. Most of the 32 teams for this World Cup have at least a sprinkling of players who play in the leading European leagues. Saudi Arabia’s players, like Qatar’s, play exclusively in their own domestic league, the Saudi Pro League. Iran, in contrast, have players based in Spain, Croatia, Greece, Qatar, Turkey, Denmark, England, Portugal, Cyprus, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

Some might see that as an indictment of Saudi Arabian football, but Almisehal offers a different perspective. “The main reason no Saudi players play abroad is simply that the best players here are given very, very attractive offers by the Saudi clubs,” he says. “There is always a fight or a competition to get the best Saudi players, especially when their contract is expiring, so they get very, very high offers.”

The best-paid players in the Saudi Pro League are those signed from overseas, such as Al-Hilal’s former West Bromwich Albion midfielder Matheus Pereira, Al-Ittihad’s former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leeds United winger Helder Costa and Al-Nassr’s former Benfica forward Talisca. But Saudi stars such as Al-Shabab’s Fahad Al-Muwallad and the Al-Hilal duo of Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj are not too far behind.

According to an agent who has negotiated with Middle Eastern clubs in the past, the leading Saudi players are “talented enough to play at a good level in Europe — not Premier League — but no European club would match the kind of money they’re on”.

 FAHAD-AL-MUWALLAD-SAUDI-ARABIA

Al-Muwallad is a star for Al-Shabab (Photo: Haitham Al-Shukairi/ AFP)

Renard does not dispute that. “With what they are getting here, maybe they would have to play for Manchester City,” he laughs.

In January 2018, as part of an agreement between the SAFF and La Liga, nine Saudi players went on loan to Spanish clubs in the hope of gaining European experience before that year’s World Cup. These included Al-Dawsari at Villarreal, Al-Muwallad at Levante and midfielder Yahya Al-Shehri at Leganes.

But the nine players played a combined total of 59 minutes in La Liga — 26 minutes across two appearances for Al-Muwallad, 33 minutes in a 2-2 draw against Real Madrid for Al-Dawsari — and the project was quickly shelved.

Renard, who replaced Pizzi as Saudi Arabia coach in 2019, feels the La Liga experiment was well-intentioned but misjudged. “You arrive six months before the World Cup and you need time to adjust because in Saudi Arabia you don’t train with the same intensity as they do in Spain,” he says.

“You’re coming to a squad that is already established and the coach maybe doesn’t know you well and you have to adjust to a different country, different culture, different language, different way of training, different way of playing … and then January, February, March, April, May and it’s already finished.

“That must have been difficult for the Saudi players. If they were staying for one year or longer, it might have been different.

“Maybe we need one or two (to play in Europe). At one time, Egyptian players were only playing in Egypt. (Mohamed) Aboutrika was a fantastic player but he only played in Egypt because at that time their players were staying there. It’s similar with Saudi Arabia. And if you’re talking about a player at 27/28, it’s not easy to go to Europe, away from your family, away from your town, a different lifestyle, a different way of playing, not certain to play. 

“It’s difficult to adapt at that age. But if we were to send some young players to Europe — 15, 16, 17 — I’m sure we would see the difference because they have the talent.

“Now we have some Saudi people owning some European clubs, so I hope they will take some young players from Saudi and I hope one day, they might be able to play in the Champions League. I’m sure it’s possible.”

Many of Saudi Arabia’s players perform in the Asian Champions League, of course — Al-Dawsari and Al-Faraj were key players in the Al-Hilal team that won it in 2021. It is hard to escape the feeling that playing against Argentina, Poland and Mexico in the World Cup will represent a daunting step-up in class.

Renard insists otherwise. “No, it’s not a disadvantage,” he says. “Sometimes it’s an advantage because all of them are playing in the Saudi league, getting better and better, the level increasing here. This is my fourth season here and I know this league very well. It isn’t an easy league. The technical quality is high.”

Herve Renard

Renard is carried by Saudi Arabia’s players after qualifying for the World Cup (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

A word of warning follows. “But talent is not enough now in football,” he says. “You need to run, you need to press. When you lose the ball, your reaction in the next few seconds is so important. This is football today and this is the part we have to improve a lot.”

That is how Renard wants his teams to be able to play. “If I was to take one example, I love the Liverpool football under Jurgen Klopp,” he says. “This season they have had a lot of injured players, but if you can press the way they did when Sadio Mane was with them and Roberto Firmino in his best time and Mohammed Salah, when they won the Champions League, with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho in midfield, they were amazing. They were all working together for the team. This is what I like.”

The obvious question is whether it is possible to play like that in the heat of the Middle East — and with a Saudi Arabia team whose entire football culture is built around playing in sweltering conditions. “We actually did this very well in the qualifiers,” Renard says. “We were trying to press very high to win the ball, because if you look at the statistics, most of the time we had the ball. 

“But the World Cup is different. Do you think it would be possible for Saudi Arabia to do this against Argentina? I don’t think so. Sometimes you like something, but you also need to be realistic. It’s what I try to explain to the players. Football is not about dreaming. It’s about consistency, being realistic and being efficient.”

go-deeper

This was reflected by Renard’s experience as Morocco’s coach at the 2018 World Cup. They performed impressively in all three games, in a tough group, but they conceded a stoppage-time winner against Iran, lost 1-0 to Portugal and conceded an injury-time equaliser against Spain, ending up bottom of their group.

“We weren’t efficient enough,” he says. “We played so well against Iran but in the last minute, we conceded the goal on the counter-attack. We did well, but we didn’t have enough to reach the second round. This is football, but this is also the World Cup experience.”

With Saudi Arabia, Renard has tried to implement a more structured, less free-spirited approach. It wasn’t thrill-a-minute during the tense final round of the qualifying campaign, when they scored just 12 goals in 10 matches, but he was delighted by the way they performed under pressure to win a group that included Japan and Australia.

They have played no fewer than 10 warm-up matches since June, helped by the Saudi Pro League’s willingness to suspend their season in mid-October to allow Renard and his players as much time as possible to prepare — and they are one of the few teams for whom acclimatisation will not be a problem.

Across those warm-up friendlies, against opponents ranging from Colombia to Panama to Croatia, they conceded just five goals, suggesting they are learning the type of resilience and tactical discipline that proved elusive under several of Renard’s predecessors.

But they scored just four at the other end. And the scorelines (0-1, 0-1, 0-0, 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 0-0, 1-0, 1-1, 0-1) indicate that their plan in Qatar will be to try to contain their opponents as much as possible while working on a more patient possession game than they have deployed in the past.

“That’s something with Saudi football,” Renard says. “The players have a lot of skill. Sometimes they want to do magic things, but what we also need is to play as a team. That is the most important thing. To have a better idea of Saudi football, you can compare it with the north African countries. They too have a lot of skill. I remember when Algeria were very, very good in the World Cup. They were a very good team — together.

“Everywhere I go, I always try to have a good team spirit: the players playing together. I always repeat the same — we’re not playing for ourselves, we’re not playing for a show. Sometimes it’s not necessary to play fantastic football. We need to play as a team. Think about the team first. After, think about yourself.”

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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