Mancini’s Green Falcons looking for Saudi fans to help drive Asian Cup ambitions
RIYADH: Saudi Arabia kick off their AFC Asian Cup campaign against Oman on Tuesday, and though there will be massive pressure on manager Roberto Mancini’s side to immediately deliver with a win, the players are used to the huge occasions these days.
Attend a big game in the Saudi Pro League, such as the Riyadh Derby between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr or a big game in Jeddah, and the atmosphere compares with any of those in the major European leagues. There are world-class tifos and banners and colourful, vociferous fans.
With global audiences increasingly tuning into Saudi football, the reputation of the fan culture and the passion for the game in the country and the wider region can only grow.
The Asian Cup in Qatar could be further evidence of the vibrant football culture and love for the sport in the Middle East and North Africa region.
Morocco showed that at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and it is an inspiration for Saudi Arabia. The Green Falcons will want to surpass Morocco’s semi-final achievement on the field, and they will also look to emulate North Africans in the stands.
Saudi Arabia’s team and supporters had some beautiful moments the last time they went to Qatar in November 2022.
When Herve Renard’s men took to the pitch at Lusail Stadium to face Argentina, they knew they were facing one of the best teams in the world and that nobody gave them a chance.
They did, however, have the support of the vast majority of the 80,000 fans in the arena. What happened next has gone down in the history of the competition as the Asian team came back from a goal down to win 2-1.
The Saudi fans, and those from Arab communities in Qatar, kept coming in the remaining group games against Poland and Mexico, although sadly Saudi Arabia failed to reach the knockout stages.
What Saudi Arabia started, Morocco took to the next level. Their support during the World Cup is one of the abiding memories of that tournament. The Atlas Lions fans turned stadiums into a sea of red and created unforgettable atmospheres that won praise from even the most hardened of international journalists.
That support helped drive the team on to success and that success then, in turn, helped fuel the fervor in the stands. The combination sent Morocco all the way to the last four, beating Belgium, Spain, and Portugal along the way before losing to France.
In 20 to 30 years when the tournament starts to fade from memories to become history, the fans of Morocco will still be talked about.
Saudi Arabia will want the same. The support they received at the World Cup was bolstered by local and regional fans for the games against opposition from Europe as well as South and Central America.
That will not be the case at the Asian Cup, as Saudi Arabia will not automatically be the choice of the neutrals at the stadiums and will certainly not be seen as underdogs as they were against the likes of Argentina.
This is a competition that Saudi Arabia have a genuine hope of winning and having the backing of tens of thousands of their followers will increase those chances. It has not happened since 1996 and the hunger is there.
Head coach Mancini will be looking to give those supporters something to cheer about. He has the knowhow to win international tournaments as he showed with Italy at the last European Championship.
He has surprised fans however by omitting goalkeeper Nawaf Al-Aqidi from his final squad. The Al-Nassr shot stopper is one of the few Saudi Arabians to get regular playing time in the league this season. With the 23-year-old seemingly uninjured, it looks to be a gamble from the Italian coach and any mistakes by the other goalkeepers will be highlighted. Yet these are the decisions that coaches live or die by.
Regardless of that controversial selection, the team will be cheered onto the pitch at Al-Khalifa Stadium. If the players can inspire the fans to go to the next level, then the 12th man will play their part. If so, a beautiful Moroccan-style momentum could develop and, this time, it could go all the way.