Real Madrid fans celebrate Champions League title back home

RIYADH: There was a significant signing made in Saudi Arabia on Thursday as it was announced that Herve Renard had agreed to extend his contract as head coach of the national team to 2027.

The Frenchman revealed the news in a video released by the country’s football association.

He said: “From the moment I arrived, I felt as if I was one of you. I felt the passion for football, people’s desire for success and glory. I saw a country full of young, talented players. We achieved our first target, let’s work together for the rest.”

The former defender then signed a shirt with the number 2027 on the back and added: “I’m here to stay.”

It will be welcome news for most people associated with Saudi Arabian football.

Renard arrived three years ago to take over a team that had exited the Asian Cup in January in the Round of 16. In the 22 months or so prior to that, there had been four men in charge of the Green Falcons. At the very least, the man from east of Lyon has brought some much-needed stability.

But he has done far more than that. The national team is a different beast now than it was in July 2019. He arrived as the man who won the Africa Cup of Nations with Zambia in 2012 which was a hugely impressive achievement and a first ever continental title for the Copper Bullets. He then repeated the feat with Ivory Coast three years later, only a second ever title for the Elephants.

Football exists outside the big leagues of Europe, and Renard’s curriculum vitae is an excellent one and also includes taking Morocco to the 2018 World Cup where they performed well in a tough group.

And his CV is quite lengthy too. The 53-year-old’s job in Riyadh is his 12th as a head coach and already the longest he has stayed at one position. There does seem to be a sense that the coach and the team are good for each other.

There was not much sign of that when it started. Weeks after arriving in the country, qualification began for the 2022 World Cup, and it failed to start the way fans wanted or expected.

There was a surprising 2-2 draw with Yemen in the first game in September 2019 and a goalless stalemate with Palestine in the third match. At the halfway stage of the second round, Saudi Arabia were second behind Uzbekistan and with only the top team sure of progressing to the next stage, the situation was uncertain. In this part of the world, coaches have lost their jobs for less.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Renard obviously used the 15 months pause between qualifiers to good effect. When the group resumed action in March last year, Saudi Arabia won all four games, scoring 14, conceding none, and topping the group.

This was a team with the ability to manage games and to change their approach depending on the situation. They could keep the ball for long periods and slowly build or they could get physical and launch direct attacks.

The defense has become more comfortable in possession, and the defensive midfield is technically excellent which has given creative talents such as Salman Al-Faraj and the increasingly impressive Salem Al-Dawsari the space to really show what they can do.

There was now no looking back. The third round of qualification is where there is little room for slip-ups and Saudi Arabia were almost textbook. It started with four wins out of four, 12 points that put them in control of Group B and they rarely looked like letting it go. The exciting 3-2 win over China showed their attacking capabilities, and the 1-0 victory over Japan demonstrated control, defensive discipline, and intelligence.

Then came a tricky trip to Australia, a place where Saudi Arabia have usually struggled but this is a different team now. The players showed they could mix it physically with the Socceroos and, in the end, came away from Sydney disappointed to have just one point. The one defeat came in Japan, but the team bounced back and ended up winning the group.

There are issues of course. Renard has talked about the lack of strikers available. The squad is entirely domestic-based and when most clubs import striking talent, it does not leave many opportunities for local forwards. There is not much Renard can do about that other than just point it out, and it was encouraging that Firas Al-Buraikan and Saleh Al-Shehri were second and top joint scorers, respectively, in the third round of qualification. The recent injury to Al-Shehri has added to the worries caused by another long-term absence to midfielder Abdulellah Al-Malki.

All teams have to overcome absences, but Renard has done much more than that. He has made Saudi Arabia a more feared and respected team in Asia. He has improved players and the team and changed the mentality. There is now a confidence, an intensity that has created a feeling that the whole set up is moving in the right direction. Things can change quickly in football, but coach and team complement each other very well.

Keeping one of the best coaches working outside Europe may seem like an easy decision but the Saudi Arabian Football Federation should be congratulated for moving quickly to do the deal.

Extending the contract to 2027 could see Renard in charge of the Green Falcons when the country hosts the Asian Cup. That is a long time in the future but if there is the same improvement in the next three years as there has been in the past three years then Saudi Arabia really will be a force to be reckoned with.