Hoping for Goals from the Arabian Peninsula
For the first time, four teams from the Arabian Peninsula are competing in the World Cup. This is a stepping stone for Saudi Arabia to develop its soccer business.
A video uploaded on the Saudi national team's Twitter account, @SaudiNT_EN, early Monday morning, has sparked hot discussions in the oil-rich country. The two-minute-53-second video contains the announcement of the Saudi team for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The announcement on behalf of 23 players was arguably unique. The video shows a number of people mentioning the names of players. A man received a phone call announcing that the midfielder from Al-Ahli club Taiseer al-Jassim was in the team. The news was then delivered by a boy to a date palm farmer. "Uncle, Taiseer Al-Jassim is in the squad," the boy shouted to the man climbing the date palm.
In another scene, a barista in a coffee shop wrote the name Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab) on a plastic cup and a boy scored in a video game with Mohammad al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr). As reported by The National, four hours after the upload, the video has been watched almost a million times and got 600 comments.
In the video, the name of Nawaf al-Abed (Al-Hilal), who has appeared 44 times with the national team, was not mentioned. The player who scored four goals in the final round of qualifications-which led Saudi to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 2006-was dropped because he was recuperating from injuries.
The announcement came only a day after Saudi was defeated by Peru 0-3 in a test match at St Gallen, Switzerland, last Sunday. For three weeks before the opening match against Russia on 14 June, the Saudis will undergo training in Switzerland.
The game against Peru was originally designed so that the Green Falcons could get familiar with the style of the Latin American soccer game, because one of the opponents they will face in the preliminary round of Group A is Uruguay. Abdullah al-Khaibari said his team still had enough time to improve their game. The Saudis will undergo their final test match against Germany on June 9. "The important thing is performance, regardless of the outcome, and also how the team is growing," said midfielder Al-Shabab, as reported by ESPN.
Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi did not field his main team when playing Peru. The latter is favored for being ranked 11th in the world and never lost in the last 14 games. However, the defeat raised doubts about the Saudis being able to face the intense competition at the World Cup.
The President of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) Adel Ezzat admits his team faces enormous pressure since qualifying for the World Cup. Not wanting the national team to be anxious, the SAFF immediately made special arrangements, including holding five training camps and nine test matches. "This preparation period requires concentration and discipline," he said.
The Saudis also face pressure from other Arab teams who also qualified. For the first time since the World Cup was held in 1930, there are four Muslim majority countries that qualify for the finals, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The largest number of Muslim majority teams in the previous World Cup was only three, which was in 1986 and 1998.
Egypt made a surprise comeback. They became the first Muslim majority team to appear in the World Cup in 1934, and now they are returning after 28 years. Winger Mohamed Salah became the soul of the Egyptian team. Two goals were made as Egypt defeated Congo by 2-1, including one from a penalty in injury time, paving its way to Russia.
The Liverpool player is phenomenal. He became an idol in Egypt and the world. Hazem Emam, a former Egyptian player who has had 87 appearances with the national team, said Salah is the key to their success in the World Cup. "When we succeed for the qualifying round in 1990, it is the result of team work. This time Salah is the leader. "
But Egypt is now overshadowed by anxiety after Salah suffered a serious shoulder injury as he defended Liverpool against Real Madrid in the Champions League final game late last month. The Egyptian team became crippled after Salah's injury.
The absence of Salah's influence was already visible when Egypt played a goal-less draw against Colombia on Saturday last week. Salah also did not play when Egypt faced Kuwait on May 25 because he had to prepare for the Champions League final. The game ended without goals.
Egyptian coach Hector Cuper said Salah's absence seriously affected the team's preparations. Egypt will undergo the inaugural match in Group A against Uruguay in Yekaterinburg on June 15. Cuper is still looking for ways to cover the team's gap after Salah's injury. "The players respond well to instructions, but the absence of Salah brings a negative impact on the team," said Cuper as written by Reuters.
Salah himself spread optimism to the Egyptian public by uploading a photo of him undergoing physical training to recuperate his shoulder. The Egyptian Football Federation also signaled that Salah could perform in the World Cup. After receiving a report from a national team doctor last week, the Egyptian soccer authorities said Salah would be out for no more than three weeks.
Seven countries with Muslim majority residents will feature in the World Cup. In addition to these four Arab teams, Iran, Senegal, and Nigeria are also present. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Muslim fans will come to Russia.
The opening day of the World Cup will coincide with the celebration of Idul Fitri (end of fasting month). Russia, with about 20 million Muslims, is preparing to welcome the fans. The two predominantly Muslim states of Russia, the Republic of Chechnya and the Republic of Tatarstan, are expected to become major destinations. The Egyptian team even chose Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, as the team's headquarters during the World Cup.
Teams from Muslim countries and their supporters may arrive in Russia during the Ramadan fasting month. The International Football Association Federation (FIFA) will release a special guide for them. FIFA Secretary-General Fatma Samoura said his agency would ensure that Muslim players and supporters would get the information they needed. "For example where to buy halal food or where to pray," said Fatma, who is a Muslim from Senegal.
Unlike the Saudi teams that rely on local talent, Morocco is actually reinforced by many players who were born and raised abroad. They can defend Morocco because they have a blood bond with their ancestors or are related by the citizenship status of their parents. More than 60 percent of the Moroccan players in the qualifying round were born in Europe. They are descendants of Moroccan immigrants who went to Europe in the 1960s and mostly settled in France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
This diaspora has produced players who received an education in soccer, and have had the opportunity to compete in Europe. Mark Wotte, a Dutch coach who handles the U-23 Moroccan team, said some of his players were from Spain and France. "It seems there is no Moroccan-born Moroccan in this team," Wotte said as quoted by World Soccer.
For many years Morocco suffered losses after a number of country-born players preferred to defend other countries. Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini chose Belgium. Ibrahim Affelay wore the Dutch team costume, eliciting a lot of scorn and cries of treason. Norway, who did not qualify for the World Cup, was also reinforced by five players of Moroccan descent.
Many ethnic Moroccans are playing in major European clubs. Medhi Benatia, a player born in Courcouronnes, France, has experience in Marseille, AS Roma, and Bayern Munich. The 31-year-old player is now playing with Juventus and is a mainstay in the midfield of the Moroccan team.
There is also Karim El Ahmadi, who played in Feyenoord Rotterdam for the last four years. El Ahmadi, born in the Dutch city of Enschede has been Morocco's mainstay since 2008. In 2010, when Morocco failed to enter the World Cup, El Ahmadi supported his friends in the Dutch national team. But this time, ironically, the Dutch failed to qualify.
The ongoing campaign of the Moroccan Soccer Association in 2014 to persuade the Moroccan soccer players to return home has been fruitful. The tight competition among European teams has hooked many players on the call. The attacker, Hakim Ziyech, decided to withdraw from the Dutch team's training camp in 2015 to join the Moroccan team. The same went for the Paris-born Sofiane Boufal who made his debut with Morocco in the 2016 African Cup of Nations. There is a possibility that the Lion of Atlas' starter team will consist mostly out of players born and raised in Europe when they face Iran in St. Petersburg on 15 June.
Moroccan coach Herve Renard said he always puts the interest of the team first, so he did not always choose the best players. Renard, who has picked 23 players to take to Russia, was criticized by fans for not taking Boufal and Walid Azaraou, who are top scorers in the Egyptian Premier League.
According to Renard, who is French, his team consists of 17 of the best players, and the rest of the players are those who practiced consistently and will prove to be relentless in their participation in the tournament for a whole month. "The interest of the team is the most important thing," he said as quoted by Morocco World News.
In addition to striving for goals, Saudi Arabia aims to make the World Cup a stepping stone in its soccer business development plan. Next year, the Saudis will play in the Asian Cup. The country's government targets its professional soccer competition to be on the list of the world's top seven leagues by 2020.
The main supporter of the grand plan was Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He has embarked on social reforms, such as reopening the movie business and allowing women to drive and watch soccer at the stadium. "In 2019 it could reach three million fans," said Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia Chief Turkey Al-Asheikh.
In order to form a winning team, Saudi Arabia is restructuring the coaching system of young players. Belgian coach Jan van Winckel was recruited in 2015 as SAFF Technical Director. In two years, he doubled the number of registered players, as well as adding a soccer academy and courses for young people who want to become coaches.
Talent seekers target Saudi-born foreign players such as Mukhtar Ali, of Somali descent and born in Mecca, who has played for England's U-16 and U-17 national teams. Also Faris Abdi, a player born and raised in the US city of San Diego. He polished his skills at the University of Virginia and became a member of the U-18 national team.
The business network of Arabian millionaires has already spread to Europe. They buy clubs that are almost bankrupt and provide big capital. Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani, a member of the Royal Qatar family, bought Spanish club Malaga in 2010. Sheikh Mansour, an Emirate of the United Arab Emirates, bought Manchester City in 2008. Another Qatar billionaire, Nasser al-Khelaifi, bought the French League 1 club Paris Saint-Germain, which was in debt in 2011.
Saudis also built a special program for players. The country's sports authorities made a deal with Spanish La Liga manager to galvanize his players for six months. Nine players are sent to Spanish clubs to taste different soccer experiences and strategies.
A number of players sent in January, such as Salem al-Dawsari, Fahad Muwallad, and Yahya al-Shehri, were members of the national team that helped the Saudis qualify for Russia. However, the quality of Saudi players is still considered below the standards of La Liga, so they mostly stay on the sidelines.
Adel Ezzat is optimistic his team will perform well in Russia. Moreover, team members have met with Prince Mohammed, who strives to develop soccer in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince's son even bore the entire debt of the Saudi Arab League club, which reached US$340 million, or about Rp4.7 trillion. All clubs in the country belong to the government.
According to Ezzat, this support boosted the spirit of the national team players. "Our job is to answer the trust of the Saudi leaders by performing well in Russia," he said as quoted by Arab News.
GABRIEL WAHYU TITIYOGA