Over the past 20 years, Saudi Arabia have missed out on a number of major tournaments; in fact, the Green Falcons last appeared at the FIFA World Cup™ in 2006. The U-20 side, meanwhile, had not competed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup since 2011, in Colombia. That unfortunate run is now over, however, as the young Saudis recently booked their ticket for Korea Republic 2017.
The man behind this remarkable qualification, coach Saad Al Shehri, the successor to Khaled Al Quruni who steered the U-20 team to Colombia 2011, had set two key objectives during the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship in Bahrain.
“When you’re taking part in a continental competition like that, the prime objective is to qualify for the World Cup,” he explained to FIFA.com. “We reached the quarter-finals, where we had to beat Iraq to qualify. We played very well and led by two goals, but our lack of experience caused us to let our opponents back into it. After they equalised, we showed we were mentally stronger during the penalty shoot-out.
“With our victory and the qualification for Korea Republic 2017, we were so proud to play a part in getting Saudi Arabian football back onto the world stage.”
He continued: “We didn’t let our emotions get the better of us and we just headed back to the hotel. It was then that I set a new objective: becoming Asian champions, a title that had escaped us for quite some time. We went on to beat Iran in the semi-finals and we played very well in the final against Japan, but we ended up losing on penalties. I wanted us to win, obviously, but we just didn’t get the rub of the green.”
*The Saudi Arabians had to wait until Colombia 2011 to reach the knockout stages of the U-20 World Cup, having failed to advance from their group on numerous previous occasions, including at Nigeria 1999, where Al Shehri himself was part of the squad.
“It was a fantastic generation of players.” he recalled. “Unfortunately, we didn’t prepare well enough. We’d only played in a handful of international matches prior to that. But we were technically superior to Japan, who reached the final.
“Through that experience and others, I learned that players had to be well prepared, because all of the other teams had made progress in the meantime. Since the end of the Asian Championship, I’ve been scheduling little weekly get-togethers. Over the coming months, we’re going to work as hard as we can during training camps abroad, and play in no fewer than 15 international matches before the U-20 World Cup.
“Our goal is to go as far as possible at the tournament. We shouldn’t be satisfied with just taking part or reaching the knockout stages. We’re going to instil a winning mindset in the players and convince them that they’re capable of beating anyone.”
*Al Shehri has built up a wide variety of football-related experience. After having established himself in Al-Ittifaq’s first team, he signed for Al-Naissr, but an injury prevented him from fully living out his dream of a professional playing career. He then began working for Al-Qadisiyah as a physical education teacher in a local school, where he took charge of an amalgamated school team that reached the regional championship.
“The injury I suffered stopped me from pursuing my playing career,” he said. “I was on the point of representing the senior Saudi team in the qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup when it happened. After hanging up my boots, I drifted into coaching and started off with youth teams. I managed to win the youth championship with Al-Ittifaq, and with Al-Nassr, which led to me taking up the reins of Saudi Arabia’s U-20 side.
“I’m not in a hurry; I don’t want to cut any corners. I was previously asked if I wanted to coach some of the biggest Saudi clubs, but I preferred to take things slowly. Like the players, who need to gain experience, a coach needs to work a lot and make regular progress if he is reach the summit of the game.
“There’s not been an awful lot of rest since the Asian Championship. During the weeks that followed, I laid out a roadmap for reaching the World Cup. I won’t be able to relax after the competition either, because I’m got a contract with the Olympic team as well, which will be mainly composed of players from the U-20 side.”
The tireless tactician extrapolated on the secrets of his team's success: “To succeed, you have to be able to anticipate the future. We now have good people in place at the head of the Saudi FA and we hope to reach the 2020 Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in Tokyo. We won’t have a lot of time after the World Cup because we’ll already have one eye on our Olympic qualifying campaign, and I hope that we can get Saudi Arabia back to that competition.
“I have some big ambitions and I’m ready to give all I have for the love of the game. I’m currently studying towards an advanced coaching diploma (for professionals) that will enable me to expand my practical experience for the future.”
Courtesy of Al Shehri’s passion, which he has made sure to pass on to his players, the Asians* *now fear no-one. If the pre-tournament training goes as well as is hoped over the next five months, they should give their opponents at Korea Republic 2017 a serious run for their money.