Saudis go Dutch in bid to restore pride
A member of the Saudi Arabia coaching staff was watching the national team being put through their paces ahead of the quarter-final of the 2007 Asian Cup. "The problem with our players is," he said, jabbing his head in the direction of the stars sweating in the heat and humidity of the late Jakarta afternoon, "they just are not hungry enough to get to the top. Technically and physically, it is all there but mentally..."
However, if the players lack desire to compete with the world's best, the same cannot be said of the federation, which has signalled that it is not ready to be thrown out of the 'Asian powerhouse club' by signing a heavyweight coach in the shape of Frank Rijkaard.
Looking at the past record of Dutch coaches in Saudi Arabia offers no clues as to whether the reported £9.3 million over three years is going to be a sound investment. Leo Beenhakker not only took the team to a debut World Cup in 1994, he made the second round. Ten years later, it was a different story in China as under Gerard van der Lem (Rijkaard's assistant coach at Ajax during his second spell and 1995 Champions League winning spell), the Green Falcons finished bottom of their group with just a solitary point.
That was a shock after six consecutive final appearances in the continental competition. It was also seen as a blip, a feeling that was reinforced by the all-conquering exploits of Al Ittihad in the 2004 and 2005 Asian Champions League, impressive qualification for the 2006 World Cup and reaching the final of the 2007 Asian Cup. Since then, the news has been pretty much all bad for fans and federation. South Korea and Japan are the ones doing all the things that Saudi Arabia are not- sending players to the big leagues, dominating continental club competitions, developing young talent and progressing to the knockout stages of World Cups.
That was particularly tough to watch for Saudi Arabia. After 1994, three successive appearances at the World Cup meant that the team quickly became the Middle-East's regular representative on the global stage. They had chances to go to South Africa, literally, with shot after shot against North Korea in June 2009, in search of a goal that would have secured automatic qualification. At the King Fahd International Stadium, the celebrations from the Koreans after the match filtered through to a deflated home dressing room. Everyone I talked to in the Saudi camp regarded the East Asian players as less talented but they had a fighting spirit that their rivals couldn't match. The play-off route ended with last-minute elimination at the hands of tiny neighbours Bahrain.
Unusually for a federation that goes through coaches (34 in the past 25 years) with as much ease, though less grace, than Lionel Messi goes past defenders, the federation kept its trusty scimitar sheathed and allowed Portuguese boss Jose Peseiro to stay. Officials returned to form after the national team didn't in the 2011 Asian Cup, cutting the ex-Panathinaikos coach loose following an opening game defeat. Nasser Al Johar, the moustachioed Tony Parkes of the Middle East, has a permanent hotline to football officials and was drafted in for a fifth spell on the sidelines. It didn't work as the group and the tournament ended with a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Japan. Humiliation was compounded by slipping down to 92nd in FIFA's rankings, a steady slide from the 23rd attained in May 2004. It cost Prince Sultan Bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud his job as president of the Saudi federation.
The new man, Prince Nawaf Bin Faisal, took time to get into gear and after a brief flirtation with Brazilian Ricardo Gomes has pleased fans and media with the appointment of a truly big-name coach. It hasn't gone unremarked that it is entirely possible that Saudi Arabia and their former Barcelona boss could meet Iran, led by ex- Real Madrid manager Carlos Queiroz (whose assistant at the Spanish giant was Peseiro) during qualification to give extra bite to an already spicy rivalry. That isn't going to happen yet however. Rijkaard's first steps on the road to Brazil 2014 start nice and early with a home and away tie against Hong Kong later this month. This should be a gentle introduction and gateway to the first of two group stages that will decide which Asian teams go to Brazil.
The 2006 Champions League winning manager is already studying DVDs of his new players and will get a chance to see them with his own eyes in a few days. He will see footage of talented players and may wonder why he doesn't know more about some of them. The lack of stars overseas is oft-cited as a reason for the relative falling behind of Japan and South Korea. Players in Saudi Arabia, and often elsewhere in the region, are happy to stay where they are happy and are reluctant to move out of their comfort zone.
Fairly or not, Yasser Al Qahtani seems to symbolize the strengths and weaknesses of players from the Kingdom. Since before the 2006 World Cup, he has been regarded as one of Asia's top strikers without ever quite fulfilling his potential amid rumours that he likes partying just as much as playing. His one foray into Europe didn't go too well with the now infamous trial at Manchester City in 2007. That ended, if reports are to be believed and we are talking about the English tabloids here, with a Richard Dunne reducer and Al-Qahtani, watched by a large retinue of hangers-on, in tears. It could be that Rijkaard's laid-back personality and preference for putting an arm around the shoulder rather than pointing a finger in the face is exactly what Al- Qahtani needs. If so, Brazil will be that little bit closer.
New striking star Naif Hazazi hasn't recovered the thrilling form of 2009 when he led an all-too brief Saudi revival in World Cup qualification only to miss the Bahrain disaster due to a cruciate ligament injury. The Al Ittihad goal-getter is one of only a few talents to emerge and excite the fans in recent years. A lack of investment in youth football and grassroots is a long-standing problem in a football scene dominated by incredibly rich men who want unfeasibly quick success. It won't go unremarked that the huge amount of money paid to the incoming Dutchman would be welcomed at the grittier end of the football pyramid. The lack of a nationwide youth programme leaves the future of the game in the hands of clubs that all too often prefer to fire a coach for a few bad results than look to the long-term. There are positive signs with Al Nassr getting serious about their youth program but it remains to be seen if this becomes the rule rather than the exception.
The federation can focus too much on the national team in other ways. Interference in team affairs is not unheard of, though it is more common on the club scene. Cynics believe that the reason Al Johar is drafted in whenever things don't quite go the way they should is simply because the local coach may just be more open to suggestions from above.
That is unlikely to be a problem for Rijkaard. There is little logic in paying so much money to a big-name coach and then telling him what to do - a man who has won the Champions League as both player and coach is hardly likely to accept such 'advice' anyway. That stature also gives him more job stability than his predecessors and provides the opportunity to look, not to the long-term but perhaps to the medium term. He is not going to be fired after a couple of mediocre results.
Well, probably not. The exciting thing about the situation is that nobody has a clue what will happen and one wonders what Frank Rijkaard will be saying about his players, as well as his employers, while watching training from the sidelines a couple of years from now.