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Saudi football chief praises ‘intelligent leader’ Renard, promises Jeddah party after World Cup qualification

SHARJAH: Twenty months after the arrival of Herve Renard as Saudi Arabia national team manager, it was a night for everyone involved in Saudi football to revel in the joy of reaping the rewards of months of hard work, culminating in a second consecutive qualification to the FIFA World Cup.

Not since South Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006 have the Green Falcons made it to the finals on two consecutive occasions, but at Sharjah Stadium on Thursday evening, the Saudi Arabia bus arrived for the clash against China carrying a buoyant squad, safe in the knowledge that their place in Qatar 2022 had been booked before a ball was kicked, thanks to Japan’s 2-0 victory over Australia earlier in the day.

“Fortune favors the brave,” according to the old Latin saying, and brave indeed were the Saudi players who navigated the battles of two-and-a-half years of the qualifiers journey that started in September 2019 with a hard-fought 2-2 draw against Yemen, a game that needed the Green Falcons to come from behind on two occasions.

That night in Bahrain may seem a moment of distant history now, but along every step of the journey, it was vividly present in the mind of Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser Al-Misehal whose tears of joy told the tale of a man basking in the glory of achieving something he, and many working under him, have worked toward since his election to the post in 2019.

“We were not watching the (Japan versus Australia) game. It was lunchtime, so we were having lunch with the team,” Al-Misehal said, recounting how the news of Saudi Arabia’s progress to Qatar 2022 was received at the Green Falcons’ camp.

“After lunch, it was the last minutes of the game and we heard the sounds of the coaching and backroom staff screaming with joy, that is how we learned of our qualification to the World Cup.

“The first person who called me to congratulate me was my mother. This is an opportunity for me to thank her for the incredible support she has always given me. Minister of Sport Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal also called instantly, we are blessed to have this man as minister of sport,” he added.

The call from the Kingdom’s sport chief not only carried a congratulations message, but also a promise of wild celebrations upon the team’s return to Jeddah for the final game of the qualifiers against Australia on Tuesday.

Al-Misehal said: “Prince Abdulaziz always takes the initiative when it comes to supporting us, and he has informed me that a huge celebration event befitting the occasion is being prepared, and there will be surprises for the fans too. I know the fans in Jeddah need no invitation. We are already receiving requests for tickets.”

On the pitch, with no fans present at China’s adopted home of Sharjah, it was a muted atmosphere as the Green Falcons took the lead on the stroke of halftime thanks to Saleh Al-Shehri’s header from Salman Al-Faraj’s corner. The hosts responded late on, equalizing against the run of play as Zhu Chenjie converted a penalty eight minutes from time after Abdulelah Al-Amri handled the ball inside the Saudi box.

Al-Misehal had no qualms about the result, heaping praise on the players and head coach Renard for the work they have done throughout the campaign, while turning attention to the homecoming fixture at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in a few days’ time.

“We controlled the match from start to finish and wasted many opportunities, but of course, when the main objective you have been working toward for more than two years is already achieved, it is natural that a bit of a drop happens.

“Anyway, I do not want to discuss this game extensively, we are delighted to have qualified and want to enjoy the moment. Of course, we wanted the three points, but it wasn’t to be. The players vowed to make up for it in the next game and get the three points against Australia,” he added.

The draw against China meant the Green Falcons surpassed their final tally of 19 points in the Asian Qualifiers to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with a game to go. Renard’s men led the group since October and looked comfortably headed to the finals from day one, despite facing 2015 AFC Asian Cup winners Australia and 2019 runners-up Japan, both sides of international pedigree and with an endless stream of talent in top European leagues, in contrast with the entirely domestic-based Saudi Arabia squad.

Al-Misehal said: “Our goal was clear from the start; we came into every match as a final. We played eight games before tonight and collected 19 points which helped us secure qualification after Australia lost earlier today. This is a big achievement; it is the first time in Saudi football history that we have reached the World Cup with two games to spare.

“I want to congratulate King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Prince Abdulaziz, and all our leaders who have continued to shower us with their generous support.

“This was an effort from the players to repay that faith. I must congratulate the players and first and foremost this incredible, intelligent leader we have in Renard, as well as every member of the backroom staff who have worked tirelessly for the past two-and-a-half years to reach this point and that is the most important thing,” he added.

With next week’s World Cup draw in Qatar fast approaching, Al-Misehal was adamant victory against the Socceroos was important for the team to improve their FIFA rankings, with the upcoming March 31 rankings forming the basis for seeding in the draw.

“We want to beat Australia in the final game, they are a strong team and we have not beaten them in a long time.

“Of course, it is a dead rubber game because even Australia have secured third place, so there isn’t much to play for, but we want to get the three points and hope Japan lose their game so we can finish top of the group. But what matters most for us is not just finishing top but climbing up the FIFA rankings too,” he said.

Lauded by the nation’s football chief, Renard is set for a second appearance on the global stage, having led Morocco to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and with two continental titles to his name with Zambia 2012 and the Ivory Coast 2015 he further cements his status as one of the finest international managers in the modern game.

The 53-year-old Frenchman was in a grateful mood as he reflected on a 16-match journey in the qualifiers, hailing the efforts of his players.

Renard said: “First of all, congratulations to everyone in Saudi Arabia for qualifying. Two games before the end, we are already qualified and that’s a very good thing. Of course, we also wanted to win this game and we had so many chances, but we didn’t score the second goal.

“In football, it’s very important to be efficient. I don’t think they had any shots on goal, but we conceded a handball. This is a part of football, maybe we were not fully concentrated in defense. I don’t want to blame the players because they gave me a lot and I want to thank them for it.

“We played 16 games of qualifiers before this game. It was difficult, so they made a lot of effort to be in first position and qualify with two games to spare and that’s what we have done. Saudi Arabia will be at the draw on April 1 and that is the most important. With already 20 points. In 2018 we ended with 19 points, and we can still get more.”

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