Caro restores Saudi sparkle
© AFP

Spanish coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro has taken just a year to get Saudi Arabia’s national side back on track after they had slumped to 126th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in December 2012, an all-time low for the Falcons.

Since replacing Frank Rijkaard in the Saudi hotseat, the 50-year-old coach has presided over a winning run that has seen his side make a spectacular charge up the ranking. Thanks to their latest haul of 96 points, Saudi Arabia are this month’s highest climbers, jumping 14 places to 73rd, a move that has taken them to eighth in Asia.

“We need to put the past behind us, focus on the future and put Saudi football back where it belongs,” the Spaniard said on his appointment in January 2013. “We need to follow a specific plan and give our fans the wins they want.”

The main reason for the Saudi recovery over the last 12 months is the remarkable results they have garnered in the qualifying competition for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, results that have taken them to the top of Group C ahead of China PR, Iraq and Indonesia and have landed them a place in the finals in Australia with two matches to spare.

We need to put the past behind us, focus on the future and put Saudi football back where it belongs.
Saudi Arabia head coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro

The Saudis kicked off their qualifying campaign with a 2-1 defeat of the Chinese before beating the Indonesians by the same scoreline and downing Iraq 2-0, giving Caro the perfect start to his tenure.

“I’m very pleased because we’ve made all the fans who turned out to support us in the qualifiers happy,” he said, unable to conceal his delight. “Saudi football has come on a lot, though there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

Youth and experience
The Falcons’ record under Caro makes for pretty impressive reading. In seven games, five of them in the Asian Cup qualifiers, they have registered four wins, a goalless draw with China PR in November and a brace of defeats against New Zealand and Trinidad and Tobago in a friendly tournament held in Saudi Arabia last September.

Their next competitive game will come against Indonesia in another continental finals qualifier in March, with Caro anxious to see his side stay unbeaten in the competition and climb even higher up the world ranking. That said, they still have some way to go to match their best-ever position of 21st, which they reached in June 2004.

Caro is optimistic about their chances of scaling new peaks: “We need to get back to where we ought to be, and to do that we have to step up our efforts. The national team has everything it needs to succeed and I hope we can be competitive again in all the tournaments we play.”

The coach has drawn on a blend of old heads and new faces for the continental qualifiers. The spine of the team is formed by seasoned campaigners, with Waleed Abdullah between the posts, Mansoor Al Harbi at the back, Saud Kariri skippering the side, Taisir Al Jassim in midfield and Nasser Al Shamrani up front, while the 22-year-old Yahya Al Shehri and Fahad Al Muwallad, three years his junior, lend a touch of youthful energy to the line-up.

The former Real Madrid, Levante, Racing Santander, Celta Vigo and Spain U-21 coach had nothing but praise for his players: “The results we’ve had and the progress we’ve made are all down to their commitment and motivation.”

Caro is hoping his charges can keep the good times rolling by picking up some silverware. The 2014 AFC Gulf Cup of Nations, to be held on home soil at the end of the year, will give them an opportunity to do just that and to prepare for the upcoming Asian Cup, a trophy that has eluded the Falcons since 1996.