RIYADH: Life is never boring at Al-Hilal. On the pitch, Asia’s most successful club are either trying to defend their continental title with six games in the space of two weeks in April or then returning to domestic action in early May in a desperate bid to keep in touch with league leaders Al-Ittihad.
If that was not enough, there is also the curious case of Mohamed Kanno.
The all-action midfielder has established himself as one of the best in the country and played all but 18 minutes out of a possible 900 in Saudi Arabia’s final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
However, the 27-year-old may be about to miss a large chunk of preparation for the tournament in Qatar after having just been hit with a four-month ban by the dispute resolution department of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. Not only that, but Al-Hilal have been effectively banned from operating in the next two transfer windows and have also been landed with a fine of around $7.2 million (SR27 million).
The reason is familiar to all who follow football in the country. Kanno joined Al-Hilal in 2017 on a five-year contract and as that deal ran down last winter and he was allowed to talk to other clubs and was close to becoming a free agent, he agreed to join bitter Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr.
Shortly after, however, he signed a new deal for Al-Hilal and continued to play for the club. Al-Nassr made an official complaint in January and the SAFF has been investigating this case of a player having contracts with two different clubs ever since, only this week releasing its decision.
One of the main talking points now is whether the decision will be upheld. Al-Hilal have the right to appeal and, according to reports, have already opted to do so. The punishment may well be reduced.
Al-Hilal hope that it is sorted as quickly as possible, but it is unlikely that it will be done before the current campaign finishes later this month.
It may well be that Kanno has played his last game this season for the defending champions. The energy, power, and thrust that he brings from midfield – a playing style that has produced comparisons to French World Cup winner and Manchester United star Paul Pogba – will be missed as Al-Hilal try to overhaul leaders Al-Ittihad.
There are other consequences, however. The first is that the prospect of not being able to sign players this summer – though it remains to be seen if this is still the case after the appeal is heard – will be a troubling one for the team as it makes it much more difficult to plan ahead.
The club are already rethinking their transfer strategy for the summer. South Korean star Jang Hyun-soo was expected to return home after three years in Riyadh but it is likely now that the club will make the 30-year-old center-back, who can also play as a defensive midfielder, an attractive offer to extend his stay by another season.
The same may happen with Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar. Al-Hilal were ready to replace the solid 29-year-old but, once again, are likely to change their mind if the punishment does not change.
There is some good news. At some point later this year, Abdulellah Al-Malki should return from the cruciate ligament injury he picked up against Japan in World Cup qualification, but much sooner than that is the appearance of Abdullah Otayf who is close to fitness and should play some part for Al-Hilal in the next few weeks.
That would be welcome for club and country as Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard will not be pleased at losing Kanno, one of his best performers from the successful World Cup qualification campaign, as he starts preparations for the main event.
A little ironically, Kanno came off the bench after 18 minutes of the first qualifier in the final round against Vietnam to replace the injured Otayf. After that, he did not miss a moment on the road to Qatar but now Renard will be looking closely to see how Otayf performs in the final few weeks of the season. If he gets back into the groove for Al-Hilal then he should get a call-up for Saudi Arabia’s first World Cup warm-up, the planned friendly against Colombia on June 5.
To see Otayf back in the field for Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia would be of some consolation for fans of both teams but they would prefer to have Kanno available too. That may not be possible for a while, however.
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