Asia Angle: Saudi football faces another roller coaster year

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  • Saudi sides have struggled this year.

    Roller-coasters are part and parcel of the Saudi Arabian football scene. Probably the high point of the ride came at the turn of the century. The Green Falcons were sitting pink as continental champions, fans were looking forward to a third consecutive World Cup and were four months away from celebrating Al Hilal’s coronation as Asian Club Champions.

    The golden era officially ended in 2007. The national team just missed out on South Africa in 2010 but didn’t get anywhere near Brazil four years later. The less said about subsequent Asian Cups the better and since Al Ittihad’s second successive Asian Champions League title in 2005, there has been no silverware on the continental club scene either.

    This year was supposed to mark the point of which the nation returned to the top table but it has already been filled with ups and downs. It started well, with the national team strolling through to the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The reward was the Green Falcons drawn in the toughest of the two groups along with Australia, Japan and the UAE.

    The Socceroos and the Samurai Blue are the favourites and will expect to take the top two places that guarantee automatic spots at the Russia World Cup. At the moment, it looks as though the Saudis will be fighting it out with their regional rivals for third place’s playoff spot.

    With just three months before it all starts with a home game against Thailand, the rumours of German interest in national team coach Bert Van Marwijk will not help. The Dutchman, who led the Netherlands to the 2010 World Cup final, has been targeted – say the press in Europe – by 1860 Munich.

    The team in the second tier of German football is reportedly interested in a big-name coach. Owned by Jordanian billionaire Hasan Abdullah, the club is ambitious and is said to want Van Marwijk as a statement of intent. Criticised in some quarters at home for taking Middle Eastern money instead of staying in Europe, a chance to return west may appeal.

    Van Marwijk has come out with the usual line about being flattered but having had no contact. “I am not considering a new club,” Marwijk told German media. “I am now preparing the team for qualification for the World Cup in Russia. This is the most important thing for me.”

    The Dutchman did recently sign a new contract with Saudi Arabia and will surely at least see what happens when the qualifiers get underway in September. Whatever happens, the rumours may be unsettling and Van Marwijk’s situation is also being monitored by a Chinese outfit.

    As well as World Cups, Saudi fans love success in the Asian Champions League. Hopes were high going into the 2016 edition, with the country having the maximum contingent of four.

    Yet only Al Hilal made it through to the second round. Of the three that fell in the group stage, Al Nassr were the worst after taking four points from the first two games and just one from the next four.

    Al Ittihad was the unluckiest. The Tigers are still the only team to win back-to-back titles in the competition, but are still awaiting for a third. Despite finishing level on points with the AGL’s Al Nasr, and having a much better goal difference, the team from Dubai went through due to a better head-to-head record.

    And then there was Al Ahli. Like Jeddah rivals Al Ittihad and unlike Al Nassr, Ahli started slowly and then found that winning their last two games was too little, too late.

    This all culminated in Al Hilal being eliminated by Lokomotiv Tashkent of Uzbekistan on Tuesday. All in all, it was another collective disappointment for the country.

    Politics did not do the Saudi teams any favours, with Riyadh breaking off diplomatic relations with Tehran in January. Three of the four-strong Saudi contingent had been drawn with Iranian sides and refused to travel. At the time, the Asian Football Confederation rescheduled the games in question to be the last two played in the group in the hope that a solution would be found in the meantime.

    It wasn’t. The Iranians were unhappy at having to play at a neutral venue and Al Nassr found Zob Ahan too hot to handle. Al Ittihad won their duels with teams from Iran but would perhaps have fared better by picking up three points earlier in the group stage.

    The national team is increasingly known for kicking up a fuss when it comes to places it will play and will not. The Falcons refused play in Palestine in the second round of qualification for 2018 though UAE had no problems, while there could be issues around September’s game against Iraq which is due to take place in Tehran.

    Too often the AFC indulges Saudi wishes but it may be best for all if Saudi Arabia just focuses on the football. If so, then the roller-coaster may take the team all the way to Russia which would ultimately see their Champions League woes forgotten.