Syrian football players comment of the moving images of their follow citizens who died in their flight for safety from the war torn country.
Mosab Belhous, the Syria goalkeeper, explains how the team are following all the news from their homeland as they prepare for their World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying matches.
Coach Fajr Ibrahim also discusses the devastating images of dead children that have shocked the world over the last few days.
In the days before budget airlines, long-haul flights and a crazy invention called the internet were commonplace, football players and managers were not generally intrepid creatures. Foreign forays were the exception not the norm.
Those brave souls who did venture out into the wider football world were considered mavericks and pioneers. From players like John Charles, the Welsh giant who in the 1950s moved to Juventus to pave the way for British players in Serie A, to bosses like Vic Buckingham, who preceded the great Rinus Michels at Barcelona in the 1960s.
But while the likes of Charles and Buckingham became household names, many have flown under the radar. One such example is David Woodfield, a Wolverhampton Wanderer during his playing days who became simply a wanderer when his career ended at Watford in the mid-1970s.
Known as ‘Duggie’, Woodfield headed to Qatar in 1978 and did not return to the UK to live until 2011 after taking in coaching stints across the Middle East, South America and Asia. It was in the early stage of his globetrotting that Woodfield took on what has since become one of football’s fieriest hotseats: the Saudi Arabia national team job.
“My old manager at Wolves, Bill McGarry, and I were invited out to work by the Saudi FA and they gave us a contract for three years,” Woodfield recalls to Sport360. “The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the heat. Training always took place late in the evening because the heat made it impossible during the day. When Ramadan came around we’d be training from around midnight until two o’clock in the morning.
“It was a shock to the system but we just had to adapt to it. It wasn’t an easy transition. We’d been in the professional game in England so to go out there we had to completely change our approach. We also had to try to change their mindset of how to do things because money didn’t just buy success, success needed developing.”
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What struck Woodfield was that the Saudi Football Federation had big dreams – exemplified by the fact legendary Real Madrid striker Ferenc Puskas had preceded him in the national team job – but a lack of football infrastructure and culture presented myriad challenges.
“They had some stadiums and they were trying to break the ground going into football but it was hard for them and the facilities were poor,” Woodfield explains. “It felt ambitious at the time but they weren’t professional – just part-time players who were still working or at school or university. Their lifestyle wasn’t ready for football. They were up all night talking and weren’t ready to train the next day. We had to change that mindset and get them used to looking after themselves and managing their diets.”
Recruitment of players for the national team proved a real test, with power struggles within the federation and the country’s clubs meaning that delicate diplomacy was often required.
“The structure changed all the time as there are always conflicts in FAs as everyone wants to be in charge. You’ve just seen it at FIFA recently. At times it was hard to bring players together as some of the officials at clubs involved with the FA would say ‘we want this player because he plays for us, and we don’t want this player because he plays for them.’ There was a real rivalry between the club sides from Jeddah and Riyadh.
“It was difficult but we had to tell them it was a national team and not a club side. Everybody should be proud of playing for their national team. The rivalry between the club sides was very intense and it made things difficult. We managed to change that as we told the FA we would only pick the best players, regardless of the club they played for.
“I remember we had a very good striker, Majed Abdullah, who was very quick and probably our best player. We’d also go out coaching in the villages to have a look at their players and the facilities there were like nothing I’d ever seen before.
They’d be training purely on sand pitches – it was a totally different experience.”
Despite Woodfield’s best efforts, the results just did not come and a third-placed finish at the 1979 Gulf Cup of Nations saw his Saudi Arabia tenure come to an end.
“We did quite well in a few competitions but coming third at the Gulf Cup wasn’t good enough. Iraq won the tournament but Kuwait had a very, very good side at the time, they were over hard to beat. It was a shame to leave because we were only just starting at the ground level and it takes a lot of time to build it up from there. Still, my memories of working in the Gulf are positive ones.
Spells coaching in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, Brazil and Finland all followed as he took up a nomadic, but richly rewarding, existence. And after experiencing football across many countries and continents, Woodfield the wanderer feels that there is a key lesson that national associations must learn.
“It’s important for countries like Saudi Arabia to realise that money doesn’t buy success,” Woodfield says. “You have to have the players to do it. I went on to work in Brunei and the Sultan pumped loads of money into the game but it has to start at the grassroots. They love football in the Middle East but often the kids are overly protected by their families. They weren’t allowed to do certain things and they didn’t often play football as it was too hot in the day. Greater participation and better coaching at grassroots level – that’s the key.”
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