Asian Cup 2023: Roberto Mancini criticises Saudi Arabia trio for 'letting down country'

Italian coach takes aim at Salman Al Faraj, Nawaf Al Aqidi and Sultan Al Ghannam ahead of opening game against Oman

Roberto Mancini is hoping to guide Saudi Arabia to a fourth Asian Cup crown. PA
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Saudi Arabia manager Roberto Mancini has not held back in his criticism of the national team players who left the squad ahead of the 2023 Asian Cup because of a potential lack of playing time.

The Saudi camp has been rocked by a number of changes in the build-up to Tuesday’s Group F opener against Oman. Midfielder, and long-time captain, Salman Al Faraj, goalkeeper Nawaf Al Aqidi and full-back Sultan Al Ghannam have been released from the 26-man roster ahead of the country’s bid for a fourth continental crown – and first since 1996.

Speaking at a fascinating pre-match press conference in Doha on Monday, Mancini said: “All of these players didn’t want to come with the national team. They decide, not me. They were on the list.

“Salman, the first time in the camp, said he doesn't want to come to play in the friendly games. I don’t feel that one player can decide when or not they play.

“Second one is Sultan, and [then] Nawaf. I spoke with both before the list and asked them if they were happy to come to the national team. And Sultan told me that he was not happy, that, ‘I play or I don’t come’.

“There is not one player that can decide if they play or not; I decide this. And he decided not to come.

“Nawaf told me he'd come but the day after, in Riyadh, he said to us he didn't want to. We tried to speak with him, and we put him on the list.

“Three days ago, he went to our goalkeeper coach and said, 'I don't want to stay here if I don't play'. No one knows the first XI for tomorrow and I don’t know why he decided this.”

Mancini added: “I want only players who want to fight for their country. This is the reason. And now, finish [asking] about this; I don’t want to talk about Salman, about Sultan, about Nawaf. OK?”

Appointed in August, the Italian followed a celebrated playing career – he represented his homeland at the 1990 World Cup – with a hugely successful time in management.

Mancini, 59, guided Manchester City to their first English Premier League title, in 2012, and previous to that led Inter Milan to a trio of Serie A trophies.

In 2021, he masterminded Italy’s European Championship victory. He left the Azzurri last summer, two weeks before he was announced as Saudi Arabia manager on a contract through until 2027.

“I don't understand when a young player refuses to come because he doesn't know if he will play or not,” Mancini said. “The national team is not a club, it's your country. You represent all the people in your country.

“You should be happy if you're a part of this group. This is a very strange situation and it's the first time I've experienced this … but we've found other players to play.”

Mancini did say he had informed Saudi Arabia Football Federation president Yasser Al Misehal of his decision to send home the trio.

While Al Faraj is one of the most experienced players available to Mancini, the absence of Al Aqidi could prove the greatest setback. The Al Nassr goalkeeper is the only local regularly playing in that position in the 18-team Saudi Pro League.

On Monday, Mancini described the lack of game-time in the top-flight for Saudi players as a “problem”, an issue only exacerbated by the revamped league’s recent sizeable recruitment of recognised international stars.

For instance, Saleh Al Shehri was sat alongside Mancini at the press conference and is expected to start against Oman. However, the Al Hilal striker has played only four times in the SPL this season – all from the substitute bench – as Serbian international Aleksandar Mitrovic has been in prolific form since joining from Fulham.

“Maybe we have problems with some Saudi players because they don't play many games, and this is the problem,” Mancini said. “We have many players who often don't play in their clubs.”

On facing Oman on Tuesday at the Khalifa International Stadium, Mancini said: “We had these two weeks to work with the players. We know all players from Oman play regularly in the league and they're probably stronger.

“But we're happy with the players we have; they want to fight for their country. Oman have good strikers and midfielders, they're very dangerous in attack. For this reason, tomorrow will be a difficult game.”

Updated: January 15, 2024, 3:22 PM