Failure to qualify for the World Cup is the latest setback for the Saudis, once Asia’s strongest national side but who have now drifted out of contention
Few people can have enjoyed Saudi Arabia’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals more than Milan Macala, the head coach of Bahrain – who eliminated their more illustrious neighbours in the most dramatic fashion.
Ismaeel Latif’s injury-time goal saw the Bahrainis advance to a play-off against New Zealand for a place in next year’s finals while also ending the Saudis’ record of four consecutive appearances at the World Cup.
Macala, like so many coaches before him, knows only too well the ruthlessness with which the Saudis deal with these kind of defeats. Nine years ago, the Czech was on the receiving end of the executioner’s scimitar which has dispatched so many – his end coming after the Saudis succumbed to Japan in the Final of the 2000 Asian Cup.
Until now, the revolving-door approach to the coach’s position had done little to deny the Saudis what was becoming their regular appearance at the World Cup. When the team would be seen to stutter, a swift change would be enough to raise the performance level and restore the Saudis on the path to the finals.
This time, though, the tactic finally failed and now Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro is feeling the heat.
Peseiro took over from Nasser Al Johar in March after back-to-back defeats at the hands of South and North Korea. His impact was immediate, steering the Saudis to wins over United Arab Emirates and, more impressively, Iran.
Those victories, coupled with a 0-0 draw with North Korea in Riyadh in the final game of the group phase, took the Saudis into the play-off with Bahrain which ultimately ended in their elimination.
Almost immediately, the hand wringing began in Riyadh and beyond.
“The current situation within the national team is not encouraging us to play at the world’s top tournament, especially with technical staff who slaughtered us during the qualifiers,” wrote Fahad Al Rawqi, somewhat predictably, in Arriyadiyah newspaper.
Mohamad Al Shaikh of Al Riyadh newspaper was more measured in his assessment of the current situation, writing: “In one season, Saudi football has seen a lot of failures, whether at club or national-team level, in addition to the set backs of previous seasons.
“Can it be said Peseiro is to be blamed or that certain tactics were at fault? A little courage is required from our football officials to admit their responsibility for this situation and not just blast the reasons for this failure into the air.”
The failure to qualify prompted an apology from Prince Sultan bin Fahad, president of the Saudi Arabia football federation, and he refused to make a knee-jerk reaction regarding the future of the head coach.
“I apologise to all Saudi football fans after this exit,” he said. “We could have avoided this situation and the result but we didn’t have our best performances and hopefully we can avoid mistakes in the future. Regarding Jose Peseiro, we will not make a hasty decision. It is certainly not logical to sack the technical staff after each defeat.”
Seeds of demise
It could be argued that the seeds of Saudi Arabia’s demise were sown as far back as the nation’s debut appearance at the World Cup finals. Since impressing in the United States in 1994 – when wins over Morocco and Belgium earned them a place in the second round – football within the country has become stagnant.
A ban on allowing players to move overseas remained in place until the 1998 finals in France, denying those who had impressed four years earlier the opportunity to improve and develop. So abject was the performance in France, the spotlight moved away from the
Saudis and has yet to return.
As a result, the Saudis have had a series of diminishing returns at successive World Cups, with first-round eliminations the order of the day as well as several humiliations, including an 8-0 demolition by Germany in Sapporo in 2002.
In addition, Australia’s arrival as a member of the Asian Football Confederation has made qualifying for the World Cup more of a challenge and it is the Saudis who – indirectly on this occasion – have become the first victims of what was always going to be a seismic shift within the Asian game.
Their response – on the pitch and within the political halls of power – will determine whether they can regroup in time for the next Asian Cup finals, in Qatar in 2011, or, indeed, to return to the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014.