Saudi soccer boss under threat after 5-0 humiliation in World Cup opener

Saudi soccer boss under threat after 5-0 humiliation in World Cup opener
The Saudi performance was so bad that local press have already discussed whether to sack coach Juan Antonio Pizzi.
3 min read
15 Jun, 2018
Taisir Al-Jassim of Saudi Arabia battles with Aleksandr Golovin of Russia [Getty]
"I'm very optimistic. No one gives us a chance, our players had a disappointing year with their loan deals in Spain, but the truth is that Russia could be surprised in the first game," a beaming Saudi fan told The New Arab outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow just before the World Cup's opening match.

"The Russians are a weak and fearful team," he added - with no idea that his smile would soon be replaced with tears.

Before the start: An electrifying atmosphere drummed up by 75,000 passionate Russians waiting for the World Cup to begin. At the final whistle: The biggest defeat ever in a World Cup opening game.

In the most Middle Eastern World Cup ever, there was a good chance that a team from the region would take part in the first match. Saudi Arabia ended up with the "pleasure" of playing Russia, the tournament's host, on the football world's most famous stage.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman in the stands, the first game of the 2018 World Cup became a political affair. While the pair were guests of FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the young Saudi prince was as shocked as that fan we met before the game. Putin grinned throughout.

The hosts hammered the Saudis 5-0, exposing all of the team's weaknesses. While the players remained organised in the first half, thanks to coach Juan Antonio Pizzi, the second half was an entirely different matter. 

Before the sporting massacre began, the Saudis opened the game cautiously, letting the Russians score easily with a header from Yuri Gazinsky in the 12th minute. The Green Falcons nearly clawed a goal back a few times in the first half, with chances both from Mohammed Al-Sahlawy and Yahiya Al-Shehri.

But Denis Cherishev nailed in the second Russian goal five minutes before the half-time whistle, and Saudi dreams of an upset were buried beneath the fantastic Luzhniki grass pitch.              

The second half was a complete disaster for the Saudi team, seeing the hosts score an extra three goals without response. Cherishev completed a hat-trick, and Dzyuba and Golovin scored a goal apiece - making the Saudis look irrelevant on the world stage.

The Saudi performance was so bad that local press immediately began discussing whether Pizzi would be sacked by the morning - remembering what happened to Carlos Alberto Ferreira, who coached the kingdom's national team in the 1998 World Cup, and suffered massive losses.

But it wasn't all bad news for the region's footballers on Thursday - Egypt received encouraging news in the afternoon.

Coach Hector Cúper declared Mohamed Salah would take part in their first match against Uruguay, now almost 100 percent fit, just three weeks after his injury.

While the majority of Egyptian fans are terrified at the prospect of their team playing without Liverpool's Egyptian king, the Pharaohs should have more confidence in some of their other players - including Mahmoud Trezeguet from Kasimpasa, Abdalla Said from Al-Ahli Jeddah, Mahmoud Kahraba and Marwan Mohsen. None are as big a name as Salah, but all are decent footballers.

Egypt will be looking to grab at least a tie-breaking point against Uruguay, which would count as a huge achievement for the Middle Eastern nation.

With Salah on the field - plus support from 100 million Egyptians at home - the Pharaohs will look to the unexpected, taking points from one of the world's top teams to cause a true Middle Eastern upset in the World Cup.

World Cup infog

Uri Levy
 runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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