|A win in the final for Saudi’s young ‘Sons of the desert’ will give them vast experience [AFP]|
Since they first qualified for the Asian Cup finals in 1984, Saudi Arabia have easily the best recent record of any team to ever play in the continental tournament.
The Saudis won their aforementioned inaugural venture into the Asian Cup finals in Singapore, and then went on to do a double four years later when winning the tournament in Qatar.
In 1992 they almost had three in a row when losing 1-0 to Japan in the final in Tokyo, before making amends with their third title in four appearances after defeating the United Arab Emirates on their home turf in 1996.
Four years later it was five consecutive finals for Saudi Arabia when they again lost to Japan 1-0, this time in Lebanon, before their worst finals campaign ever saw a group stage exit in 2004.
Now back with a new coach and a young side, and as the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) goes through a stage of transition, it seems the Asian Cup is back to normal with the ‘Sons of the Desert’ into their sixth final in the past seven competitions.
“A lot are maybe surprised to see the final between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, but if you’ve watched the tournament, then you’ll see it’s no surprise,” Helio Cesar dos Anjos, Saudi Arabia coach, told a press conference on Saturday.
“When we came here everyone said Korea, Japan and Australia would be the powerhouses at the tournament.
“We faced a lot of difficult teams, Uzbekistan were very tough,” the Brazilian added.
“Tomorrow will be an even tougher match with Iraq, as they have the emotion of the social problems at home, they are motivated by this, and they have quality players. It will be a very tough game.”
|Vieira will match wits with fellow Brazilian Saudi
Arabia’s coach Helio Cesar dos Anjos [AFP]
Dos Anjos takes on Brazilian counterpart Jorvan Vieira, Iraq coach, on Sunday, but says it will up to the 22 players on the pitch to decide the much anticipated final.
“I know the players of Iraq as we have studied the tapes to see their systems and tactics,” said Dos Anjos.
“I’m sure the executors are the players, not the coaches.
“There can not be good tactics if there are no good players. Tomorrow will be a tactical game, and I hope we can win.”
Given their history at the tournament the Saudis go into the final favoured to win, although the Iraqis undeniably hold the tag of sentimental favourites, something Dos Anjos would not buy into.
“I spoke with the players, and I like to work with our feet on the floor,” he said.
“I told the players it will not be easy, it will be very tough. Both sides have a chance.
“We have our dream and the Iraq team have their dream. There is no favourite tomorrow.”
Time for change
Saudi Arabian football has been stuck in a rut recently, with a poor 2004 Asian Cup, a disappointing 2006 World Cup in Germany, and an early exit from January’s Gulf Cup in the UAE all causing grief in the set up as a whole.
Now, with Dos Anjos on board, the SAFF is starting to plan ahead by overlooking once popular older players and turning to youth with a vision for the future.
|You could be mine: Saudi’s team captain
Yasser Al Qahtani and the Asia Cup [AFP]
“Transition in Saudi Arabia needs to happen. I’m proud I’ve started it,” Dos Anjos said.
“It doesn’t mean these players will automatically be in the next tournament.
“The door is open. We are working with the federation to ensure that in the future we have a strong team.”
If this is only the beginning of transition in Saudi Arabian football, then there is much to look forward to as the new breed are already one step away from carrying on the Asian Cup champions tradition started by the old guard.
“From the day I gave the list of players there have been a lot of critics,” said Dos Anjos.
“The players showed what they had against Korea, one of the tournament favourites, then in front of 85,000 fans in the match against Indonesia, and then against Bahrain who were beaten by Korea. Then against Uzbekistan and Japan.
“Many people spoke of inexperience, but we now have a lot of experience and the players have done well.”
A win in the final at this early stage will no doubt provide huge doses of experience and confidence to the new generation of football in Saudi Arabia.