Saudi Arabia Seek Spain's Help to Prepare for Russia World Cup

Associated Press
Saudi Arabia's attempts to prepare for the World Cup are not confined to arranging friendlies or hiring world-famous coaches.

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 season.

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.