Gulf Cup: Frank Rijkaard treading a fine line with Saudi Arabia
Frank Rijkaard's CV boasts some impressive achievements, both as player and coach, and the Dutch legend will be hoping to add the Gulf Cup to that list this month.
If he fails, he could be looking for a new job.
Winner of two Spanish league titles and the 2006 Champions League in his five years as manager at Barcelona, Rijkaard took over as the coach of Saudi Arabia in 2011 amid much fanfare and hope, promising a bright future.
"We have our goals," Rijkaard said after signing a three-year deal reportedly worth US$15.9 million (Dh58.4m). "We hope this will be the kick-off of a very successful period. As every journey, you start with the first step and that's what we made today. From now on, we will be planning."
Those plans have not come to fruition. Once the giants of Asian football, Saudi Arabia have been sliding in recent years.
Before Rijkaard's arrival, they lost all three matches at the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar.
The Saudis dismissed two coaches as a result - the Portuguese Jose Peseiro and Nasser Al Johar. The job remained vacant from January to July, when Rijkaard signed on the dotted line at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London.
Ranked as high as 23rd in the world, in 2004, the Saudis were languishing at No 92 when he took over the reins. Given his experience of the top flight in Europe, he was expected to be the man to arrest the decline.
That has not happened.
Saudi Arabia have now slipped to No 126 in Fifa rankings - their lowest position ever - and Rijkaard has been facing growing calls for his dismissal in a football-crazy nation with little patience for struggling managers: 34 coaches have come and gone in the past 26 years.
Under Rijkaard's watch, Saudi Arabia have four wins in 11 official matches - against Hong Kong (3-0 and 5-0), Thailand (3-0) and Yemen (1-0).
They failed to reach the final round of the Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, winning one of their six group matches, and they also failed to progress beyond the group stages at the West Asian Championships in Kuwait last month.
And they come to the Gulf Cup without playing a single friendly game, something that has left the former Saudi national team captain Saleh Al Naimah bewildered.
"I do fear for our national team because of what Rijkaard is doing," Al Naimah said in a recent interview. "Why does he not want to try his squad before the start of the tournament? Friendly matches are useful before official competitions.
"I am really not convinced about the preparations of our team. How do I judge the prospects of our team if we have not played a friendly game?
"I have a suspicion Rijkaard has come here only for the money and not for training. Bring me a single player to have emerged in the era of this coach. Unfortunately, there is not a single player."
Many Saudis have expressed similar views, including current players such as Naif Hazazi, who has been left out of the team for Bahrain.=
Rijkaard is not bothered about the critics and is hoping success at the Gulf Cup will prove he is moving in the right direction.
"We decided not to play friendly matches so as not to exhaust the players before the Gulf Cup or risk injuries," he said. "All these players have been playing regularly in local competitions and suffering from stress.
"I do not care about what is being said or written about me. My focus is on preparing the team for the Gulf Cup and doing well there.
"I am not interested in knowing about the people who are asking me to leave because I am not answerable to them. I am answerable only to the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and they are the only ones who can make a decision about me."
Rijkaard has managed to convince striker Yasser Al Qahtani, a veteran of four Gulf Cups, to come out of international retirement, and Rijkaard seems confident the man who helped Al Ain win a Pro League championship last year can lead the national team to success.
"The return of Yasser Al Qahtani is good for the team," he said.
"The team needs his services because he is a player with high capabilities. He is an influential player, but at the same time, he does not have a magic wand."
That last bit was, perhaps, a veiled riposte for his critics as well.
For all his glorious achievements as player and coach, Rijkaard also does not own a magic wand.
THE OTHER TEAMS IN GROUP B
Coach Goran Tufegdzic
Best results Winners in 1970, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1996, 1998, 2010
Key player Bader Al Mutawa. His form is crucial to their title defence.
Prediction The defending champions have been struggling and qualifying for the semis could be a tough task.
Coach Frank Rijkaard
Best results Winners in 1994, 2002, 2003
Key player Yasser Al Qahtani. The former Al Ain striker has come out of international retirement at Rijkaard's request.
Prediction Second in the past two cups, the Saudis should reach the last four.
Coach Hakeem Shaker
Best results Winners in 1979, 1984, 1988
Key player Ahmed Yasin. The only Europe-based player at this Gulf Cup, the midfielder from the Swedish club Orebro SK in 2012 was voted the best Arab player in the world by Sky Pools.
Prediction With Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the group, Iraq might struggle to make the last four.
Coach Tom Saintfiet
Best result Bottom of their group in all five appearances
Key player Ayman Al Hagri. One of the side's promising young players, the striker will miss the opening game with an injury.
Prediction Yemen have not won a Gulf Cup match and that is not likely to change.
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Published: January 4, 2013 04:00 AM