England team’s unity and humility help nation dream again

RIYADH: These are exciting times for Saudi Arabia’s young international football players.

The Under-20 team are in action in Tuesday’s Arab Cup final against Tunisia but more exciting is that on July 22, the Olympic team will take on Ivory Coast in the opening Group D match of the Tokyo Games.

To prepare for that African test and the following games against Germany and Brazil, Saudi Arabia have just completed two warm-ups against Uganda in Riyadh. The first on Friday ended 0-0 but Monday’s meeting saw the hosts run out 2-0 winners in what was the final preparation match before the team depart for Japan.

The record books will show that Al-Hilal’s young star striker Abdullah Al-Hamdan opened the scoring with a fierce shot just before half-time and that substitute Abdulrahman Al-Yami clinched the victory in injury time, finishing an excellent counterattack after Uganda were pushing for an equalizer.

There were other reasons for coach Saad Al-Shehri to be encouraged with the performance in which his team pushed forward from the first whistle to the last.

The three overage players – wildcards in the final squad of 20 who can be above 24 years old – all played and looked solid. There had been some concerns over the fitness of Salman Al-Faraj but the midfielder, who similar to the other two senior stars Salem Al-Dawsari and Yasser Al-Shahrani plays his club football with Al-Hilal, showed no adverse effects on a warm evening. At the back, Al-Ahli goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie ensured that the lead was protected.

Al-Shehri said: “As a preparation game it was a success. We had to work hard for the victory, we created chances and kept a clean sheet and the players worked hard, as they have been working hard for some time.

“We looked good and full of movement in the first half, but we defended well when we needed to in the second half, and I am happy that we got the second goal. It was a good test for us.”

Uganda coach Morley Byekwaso was impressed with the hosts but pointed out that conditions were tough for the visiting players.

“We struggled to adapt to the conditions on Friday with the intense heat, but I was proud of the players who tried their best and we could have won the game,” said Byekwaso, who is preparing to take his team to Ethiopia for the CECAFA Cup, a tournament for central and eastern African nations that starts on July 17.

“During this game we improved offensively as we created a lot of chances. Our finishing was disappointing, and we will have to work on that. We have learnt a lot as we prepare for the CECAFA Cup. We would like to wish Saudi Arabia well for the Olympics, they move the ball well and play good football,” he added.

The two meetings almost mark the end of Saudi Arabia’s intensive preparation period for the tournament, a build-up that included a 15-day training camp in Spain in June. During that time there were two more valuable friendly games. On June 8, the team drew 1-1 with Mexico in Marbella and then lost 2-0 to Argentina three days later with a planned friendly against Australia cancelled due to travel restrictions.

With five games against African opposition in late 2020 and earlier this year, Saudi Arabia have managed to play more than most of their Olympic rivals in the midst of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Whatever happens on July 22 against Ivory Coast and in the days to follow, the preparation period looks to have been a successful one but, as always, that will be judged on results.

Al-Shehri, who was given a four-year deal in 2020, is fully aware that the group is a tough one.

“There is always a good chance that you will meet strong teams in the Olympics. We are capable of getting into the next stage. There is a connection and understanding between this team and the senior team as players from both have been playing in decisive World Cup and Asian Cup qualifiers,” he said.

Tokyo will be Saudi Arabia’s third appearance at the Olympics. All six of the previous games have ended in defeat. The team made a first appearance in 1984, losing to West Germany, Brazil, and Morocco at the Games in Los Angeles. Twelve years later in Atlanta, there were three more defeats, this time at the hands of France, Spain, and Australia.

Al-Shehri will be hoping his team will buck the trend, starting against Ivory Coast.

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