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Friday, May 11, 2018

There are 34 days until the World Cup in Russia, but we may have to wait one more day for a decent match.

  • New norms in Arab soccer diplomacy
  • Peru with or without Paolo Guerrero
  • FIFA punishes T-shirts harsher than racism
  • How Twitter will cover the World Cup

The worst team at the World Cup may be the most interesting.

The opening match on June 14 in Moscow will feature the two worst teams in the tournament and potential for real national embarrassment.

Russia, the host, is 66th in the FIFA rankings. Saudi Arabia, at 70, is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament.

The Saudis haven’t played in the World Cup since 2006, and they have few players with international pedigree. For as much enthusiasm as the Kingdom has for its team, fans’ expectations are modest.

“Passion for soccer and the national team have been among the few themes that always unify the people,” said Ahmed Al Omran, the Financial Times’ Saudi correspondent (and an Arsenal fan).

In an email from Riyadh, he said fans fantasize the team can be as successful as the heroic Saudi side that first qualified for the World Cup in 1994, when the team reached the round of 16.

This year, “a dignified exit from the group stage combined with decent performances and avoiding large defeats is more realistic,” Al Omran said.

But the Saudis are nothing if not ambitious, and I’m genuinely interested in watching them. The Kingdom’s leaders and national sports officials are focused on success beyond Russia.

Last month, Turki al-Asheikh, the chief of the General Sports Authority, announced plans to transform the 14-team Saudi Professional League into one of the top soccer leagues in the world, with more teams and more talented foreign players.

Transforming the league is also part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s overall plan to create a more modern country.

“The government views sports, and particularly soccer, as part of its economic reform plan known as Vision 2030,” Al Omran said. “There is also strong belief that a country with Saudi Arabia’s resources and talent pool has great potential.”

Saudi teams are state-owned and notoriously mismanaged. The new plan calls for private ownership and stricter financial controls. There’s plenty of money; it just hasn’t been spent wisely.

In preparation for the World Cup, Saudi soccer officials paid for the country’s best young players to join Spanish teams in January.

In Spain, it was a marketing gambit to make inroads in Saudi Arabia, where 70 percent of the population is under 30 and mad for soccer. For their part, the Saudis wanted players to get experience to be competitive in Russia.

Mohammad Al-Sahlawi led Saudi Arabia with 16 goals in World Cup qualifying.

But it wasn’t until Monday that any of the nine players even got a sniff of first-team soccer, when Fahad Al-Muwallad played the final 10 minutes of Levates 3-0 win over Leganes.

The 23-year-old was the first Saudi player ever to play in La Liga, and he will be a dynamic part of Saudi Arabia’s attack this summer. He is a fast, instinctual striker who starts on the wing.

The star is Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, who is no kid at 31, but he’s a prolific goal scorer for club (Al Nassr, one of the Saudi league’s big three) and country. He and Robert Lewandowski of Poland were the top scorers in the world with 16 goals during qualifying. After the Saudi season ended in April, Al-Sahlawi was sent to train for three weeks with Manchester United to stay sharp ahead of the World Cup.

“I think many fans were excited about the potential of seeing Saudi players in Europe and how that could help the national team chances in the World Cup,” said Al Omran. “But after it has become clear the players won’t get meaningful competitive match experience, fans started to turn against the idea.”

Of course, if one of these players saves the Saudis from World Cup embarrassment in Russia, it will be seen as a great success.

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RUN OF PLAY | Great Reads and More

1. Saudi-first soccer foreign policy.

The Saudis are expected to support the United States in its joint bid with Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup. That decision has angered officials in Morocco who say Saudi Arabia should demonstrate Arab solidarity.

But Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi Sports Authority, said he would look out for the Kingdom’s interests first, and that meant supporting its ally the United States.

“Mr. Al-Sheikh’s Saudi Arabia First stance reflected Prince Mohammed’s efforts to emphasize Saudi nationalism as a compliment, if not replacement of religion as his regime’s legitimizing ideology,” Dr. James M. Dorsey wrote in the online journal Modern Diplomacy. “Applying the principle to soccer takes on added significance given the fact that few other things parallel the depth of emotion that religion evokes in what is a soccer-crazy part of the world.”

Read more in Modern Diplomacy.

2. Guerrero returns for Flamengo; Peru may be next.

Peru’s leading goal scorer, Paolo Guerrero, took his first steps toward the World Cup in more than six months. The striker played 35 minutes for his Brazilian club Flamengo last weekend, and he was likely to be on the roster for his team’s Copa De Brasil round of 16 match against Ponte Preta on Thursday.

Guerrero sat out after testing positive for a metabolite of cocaine. His one-year suspension was cut in half on appeal. There’s an appeal of the appeal making its way through the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland; a verdict is expected soon.

Peru must announce its provisional World Cup squad by May 14, and the team’s coach, Ricardo Gareca, might choose fewer players than he’s allowed. He was cagey as to whether or not he would include Guerrero.

Listen to Planet Futbol’s Luis Miguel Echegaray on Peru with or without Guerrero.

3. Racism apparently not as bad as wearing T-shirts.

You may remember from an earlier edition of The Banter that FIFA swore to investigate alleged racist chants directed at French players during a March friendly in St. Petersburg. Well, the verdict is in — and Russian fans were found to be just as racist as we thought.

FIFA fined the Russian Football Union 30,000 Swiss francs, or about $30,000. That's the same amount FIFA fined Bosnia last year, when fans booed the Greek national anthem. But it's a lot less than the $51,800 fine Qatar's soccer federation was ordered to pay when some of its players wore T-shirts with the face of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani before a World Cup qualifier in Doha. It was meant as a show of support for the country’s leader during a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia.

Read more from Deutsche Welle on the Qatar T-shirt incident.

4. The World Cup live — every match, all 90 minutes, 280 characters at a time.

Twitter, the infuriating social media platform that’s essential for soccer banter and conducting high-stakes diplomacy, announced its plans this week for the World Cup.

There will be highlights; brands will engage with fans; and so many partnerships for the delivery of on-field content!

I’m not entirely sure what it all means, but the breathlessness with which the plans were reported has me genuinely excited.

“Within seconds of every goal at this summer’s FIFA World Cup, a highlight will be clipped and posted on Twitter,” the online sports media site SportTechie reported. Im told this will not be part of the official video assistant referee system.

Fox, the tournament’s English-language broadcaster in the U.S., is on board to distribute some of those highlights, and it will stream a live show called “World Cup Now.” Telemundo, the Spanish-language broadcaster, is on board too, according to PR Weekly, as are several sponsors (Tecate, Corona) and teams (Brazil, England, France and Spain).

I admit: I find it difficult to watch a match and Twitter at the same time. I usually go back through my Twitter timeline after the game, but I always miss stuff.  

Perhaps we can help each other: Who is an essential follow? Tell me @jeffdmarcus and I’ll put together a list of our favorites on soccer Twitter.

The great fallacy is that the game is first and last about winning. It's nothing of the kind. The game is about glory. It's about doing things in style, with a flourish, about going out and beating the other lot, not waiting for them to die of boredom.

— Danny Blanchflower
Tottenham captain and Northern Ireland international turned journalist

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