Despite being relatively young, Saad Al-Shehri has emerged as one of the leading Saudi coaches of the past few years, enjoying notable successes with youth teams at a range of clubs as well as leading Saudi Arabia to the last 16 at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017.
Al-Shehri was a midfielder of considerable promise when he turned pro in the late ‘90s, even representing Saudi Arabia at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1999. However, serious pelvic and cruciate ligament injuries brought a premature end to his playing days in 2008 at the age of just 28.
Determined to continue in the game, he embarked on a coaching career that saw him manage age-category sides at Saudi clubs Al Qadsiah, Al-Nassr, and Al-Ettifaq clubs before leading the national team to the AFC U-19 Championship final and the Arabian Gulf Cup title in 2016, a year before the aforementioned achievement at Korea Republic 2017.
The 41-year-old is now preparing for his latest challenge in July, when he hopes the country’s U-23s can perform well at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Al-Shehri is confident his players can go far at the tournament. “We’re determined to perform honourably even though we’ll be facing difficult teams,” he said after the draw at FIFA headquarters in Zurich last month.
“The draw didn’t come as a surprise, as we knew that things would be difficult. The Olympics is a global arena where world-class teams with huge capabilities and lofty ambitions compete.”
With the draw placing the Saudis in the same group as Germany and Brazil, who faced off in the Rio 2016 final, and current African runners-up Côte d’Ivoire, Al-Shehri‘s mission will not be easy.
The Greens’ first fixture is against the Ivorians, a team Al-Shehri insists must not be taken lightly, despite being confident that his charges have what it takes to win their opening game.
“All our fixtures at the tournament will be difficult. We mustn’t underestimate Côte d’Ivoire, an outstanding team who will make things difficult for us. African teams always do well at the Olympics and often reach the final stages.
“We’ve played against several African teams, and they rely heavily on their physical strength. But we’re ready for this game. All three teams we’ve been grouped with were runners-up in their continental championships, so we’re expecting tough matches. We may not all have the same experience, but the beauty of football is its ability to surprise,” he added.
Saudi Arabia’s Tokyo 2020 fixtures
Thursday 22 July 2021
- Cote d’Ivoire-Saudi Arabia, International Stadium Yokohama, 20:30 local time
Sunday 25 July 2021
- Saudi Arabia-Germany, International Stadium Yokohama, 20:30 local time
Wednesday 28 July 2021
- Saudi Arabia-Brazil, Saitama Stadium, 17:00 local time
Third time lucky?
Saudi Arabia’s debut at the Olympic Football Tournament came in the 1984 Los Angeles edition, while their second followed 12 years later in Atlanta. On both occasions, the team left empty handed, without a win or even a point from six games.
Al-Shehri dearly hopes that their third attempt will be different, and he has set his side the task of securing the country’s maiden victory at the event and progressing from the group stage.
“We have lofty ambitions and the ability to advance. We’re now among the 16 best U-23 teams in the world. We’ll be trying to finish as one of the best eight Olympic teams and, why not, secure a medal. I believe that’s a legitimate aspiration.”