|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
24 - 30 May 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Don't look now
The two Super Cup matches played last week illustrate only too well the directions Egypt and Saudi Arabia have taken in football. Somebody has gone downhill and it isn't them.
The twin defeat of Ismaili and Ahli against Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in this first edition of the championship showed the fluidity of motion of the Saudis and the plodding, less than creative Egyptians.
Thirty years ago Egyptian clubs could beat Saudi squads with one hand tied behind their backs. In the 1980's it would get a bit harder; we could get the better of them even if we played with less than 11 players. Ten years later, it would not be surprising if they drew with us. Today, they can, and do, come out on top.
Warning signs have cropped up all over. Ahli has not been able to down Al-Ittihad in their last three encounters. In fact, the Egyptian side lost to Saudi Arabia's Al-Shabab in the 1999 Arab League's Winners Cup semi-final. Then, of course, was the devastating loss -- 5-1 -- against the Kingdom in the 1999 Confederations Cup.
The explanation for the progress and the lack thereof is a mixture of them getting better and us becoming worse, but it is more the former. Of course, they have tons of money but that is too simplistic an argument. They have invested wisely, planned future moves carefully and took a hard, honest look at their weaknesses and acted to treat them accordingly.
The Saudi football league, observers often point out, is the best in the Arab world. Their coaches are almost all Brazilian who instill in the players the famed South American flair in offense.
The country introduced a play-off system which injects more excitement in the tournament. Officials also stick to the league schedule like glue, hardly ever postponing any game. If an international fixture does get in the way, the clubs play on, minus their internationals. In Egypt, by contrast, a season can be disrupted as many as a dozen times. This on-again, off-again league throws the players off and turns their training upside down.
The Saudis have a no-nonsense federation that sternly monitors its players and is ready to lower the boom on any player for any infraction, from heavy fines to long-term suspensions. When the federation is not using its big stick, it focuses on youth, shelling out millions to churn out thousands of potential footballers.
The result has been a sweep of all major Gulf, Arab and Asian championships at club and international level. Saudi Arabia has also gone to the World Cup twice in succession and is coasting to next year's. And it is now able to beat two of Egypt's best clubs in less than a week.
In truth, Ismaili played decently against Al-Hilal and for the better part of the game was the better side, losing on a cruelly deflected golden goal. But there is no mistaking how far the Kingdom has come in football. For years, North African neighbours Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have been giving Egypt soccer nightmares. Saudi Arabia and its teams now give us even more sleepless nights.
Egypt's soccer dominance over Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf is over. Admitting it is difficult but the faster Egyptians acknowledge the situation, the faster they might be able to do something about it.
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