French coach Renard and Saudi Arabia face tough World Cup
New continent, same problem for Hervé Renard.
The Frenchman is leading another team into the World Cup — Saudi Arabia this time after Morocco in 2018 — and again the draw has not been kind.
Saudi Arabia opens its tournament against Lionel Messi and Argentina.
“We have a tough set of matches, but as a coach or a player you dream of qualifying for the World Cup and pitting yourself against the best,” Renard told FIFA.com. “The best teams in the world always come with the intention of winning it, but there are always upsets. When you are one of the smaller teams in the tournament, you must rely on shock results.”
After facing Argentina, Saudi Arabia will try to contain Robert Lewandowski and Poland before rounding out Group C play against Mexico.
Morocco was eliminated early in Russia four years ago in a group that included Portugal and Spain.
AT THE HELM
The 54-year-old Renard is the only coach to have led two different national teams to African Cup titles: Zambia in 2012 and Ivory Coast three years later.
His journey has taken unusual turns. Toward the end of his playing career, Renard worked as a janitor to make ends meet and eventually started his own cleaning company while getting his coaching licenses.
Renard helped Morocco qualify for its first World Cup in 20 years, but he stepped down after a surprise exit from the 2019 African Cup of Nations.
Soon after came a call from the Middle East. The Saudis spend lavishly through the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund in a variety of sports — which critics say is part of an effort to mask the country’s poor human rights record.
The Green Falcons under Renard qualified at the top of their group and ahead of Japan and Australia to reach the World Cup for the sixth time.
Australia coach Graham Arnold said the Saudis are often overlooked but “but they have got some really good players.”
Among the Green Falcons to watch will be winger Salem Aldawsari, who scored key goals in the qualifying campaign.
In Russia four years ago, the Saudis were routed by the host nation 5-0 before losing to Uruguay 1-0.
Mohamed Salah then gave Egypt a 1-0 lead early in the final group game — a consolation match for both teams — before Aldawsari equalized. Midfielder Salman Alfaraj volleyed in a stoppage-time winner and Saudi Arabia ended a 12-game World Cup winless streak across five tournament appearances.
Scoring has been an issue lately, though. The team has come up empty in four consecutive friendlies — against three South American teams with an eye toward the Argentina showdown — and most recently in a 0-0 draw with the United States.
United States coach Gregg Berhalter described the Saudis’ style — in Renard’s preferred 4-4-3 formation — as “tough” and “compact.”
“They had a compact base, and we wanted to get behind them,” the American coach said. “They held their line, they weren’t sagging, there was plenty of space to get behind them. We wanted to take advantage of that.”
Saudi Arabia has reached the round of 16 only once — in 1994 when it lost 3-1 to Sweden at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. It then qualified for the next three World Cups but missed out in 2010 and 2014.
Renard isn’t the only sports figure to look the other way at Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which includes the killing of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Phil Mickelson joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf International series. Saudi’s public investment fund is the majority owner of Premier League club Newcastle. Saudi Arabia also recently won the hosting rights of the 2029 Asian Winter Games.
Observers expect the country to launch a bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
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