03/21 22:54 CDT Saudi Arabia seeks Spanish help ahead of World Cup
Saudi Arabia seeks Spanish help ahead of World Cup
By JOHN DUERDEN
Saudi Arabia's attempts to prepare for the World Cup are not confined to
arranging friendlies or hiring world-famous coaches.
After years of Saudi Arabian players staying home, nine were sent to clubs in
the top two tiers of Spanish football in January until the end of the current
Three of those, Fahad Al Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Shehri, are
established internationals and have been named in the latest roster to take on
Ukraine and Belgium in World Cup warm-ups on Friday and next Tuesday.
It is all part of a plan to give the players international experience for the
World Cup. Saudi Arabia will kick off the tournament against hosts Russia in
Moscow on June 14 and later meet Uruguay and Egypt.
"The Saudi League does not have enough intensity to prepare players for a
tournament like the World Cup," Sami Al Jaber, a former Saudi international who
played at four World Cups, scoring at three of them, told Associated Press.
"That is why players need to go overseas."
The issue for national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is that none of the
players have played a competitive game in Spain since they arrived. Whatever
happens in Spain, all three internationals are expected to go to the World Cup
regardless, but regular tests in La Liga would be ideal preparation.
"The idea is a good one but it just needs time to see whether it works for the
World Cup," added Al Jaber. "It is better if they are playing and so it is up
to the coach to see how they perform in the friendly games."
A lack of international experience has been seen as a weakness for Saudi
Arabia. When the team defeated Japan 1-0 in September to qualify for a fifth
World Cup and a first since 2006, the entire roster was based at home. Asian
rivals South Korea and Japan have been exporting players to Europe for years.
Fellow Arabian team and Group A opponent Egypt has Mohamed Salah, the English
Premier League's leading goalscorer with Liverpool.
Al Jaber is one of the very few Saudi internationals to play outside the
country, spending time in England with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2000. He
hopes that others follow in his footsteps. "In England, you had to give 100
percent every time, it is a different environment."
The loan deals were done by the General Sports Authority (GSA) in Saudi Arabia
and La Liga, with the league keen to increase its international popularity in
the Middle East.
Saudi authorities are hoping for long-term benefits.
"This is a big step, a substantial move forward for Saudi sports. We have to
put the national team interests above everything else." said Turki Al-Alshaikh,
GSA chairman, adding that there will be more to come. "It is our role, all of
us, to back them in this experience."
Al Shabab, a Riyadh-based Saudi league club, has been the most supportive,
sending five players, three of which are 20 or younger, to Europe.
The loan deals are not the only unusual preparation for Saudi Arabia ahead of
June. Days after Bert Van Marwijk clinched a World Cup spot in September, the
Dutchman was replaced by Edgardo Bauza after Van Marwijk was unable to agree a
new contract. Van Marwijk will coach Australia at the World Cup.
Bauza was fired in November. New man Pizzi, who led Chile to the 2016 Copa
America title, will be looking to take Saudi Arabia past the group stage for
the first time since its World Cup debut in 1994.