Re­turn of foot­ball dur­ing Saudi sum­mer a step into the un­known

Re­sump­tion of the Saudi Pro­fes­sional League will be wel­comed by fans none­the­less

Arab News - - Sport News - Ali Khaled Dubai

The count­down for the re­turn of the Saudi Pro League on Aug. 4 is un­der way as or­ga­niz­ers con­tinue to roll out a se­ries of ini­tia­tives that have seen for­eign play­ers and staff re­turn to the coun­try and re­sume train­ing safely with their Saudi col­leagues.

Around the world, the al­most com­plete halt to sport­ing events has slowly been re­versed over the last two months with the Ger­man Bun­desliga’s restart paving the way for other com­pe­ti­tions like La Liga, the Premier League, Se­ries A and the Cham­pi­ons League to be com­pleted.

How­ever, with the sum­mer weather con­di­tions taken into ac­count, there were gen­uine pos­si­bil­i­ties that the Saudi Pro League and oth­ers in the re­gion would ul­ti­mately be can­celed.

All sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in the King­dom were in­def­i­nitely sus­pended on March 14 after the dra­matic spread of the Covid-19 virus, but as life slowly re­turned to nor­mal with the eas­ing of the na­tion­wide lock­down, plans were put in place to restart the SPL.

While the UAE’s Ara­bian Gulf League has been voided, pro­vid­ing no cham­pi­ons or rel­e­ga­tion in the process, its Saudi coun­ter­part ini­tially set out a roadmap to com­plete the 2019-20 sea­son start­ing from Aug. 20, a date that was de­cided upon after sev­eral meet­ings of the Saudi Ara­bian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (SAFF). How­ever, that re­sump­tion date was later brought for­ward to Aug. 4 by the SAFF through a se­ries of tweets on June 12, with the last of the eight re­main­ing rounds of the sea­son set to be com­pleted on Sept. 9.

“The SAFF de­cided to re­sume all foot­ball com­pe­ti­tions, start­ing from Aug. 4 and will be co­or­di­nat­ing with the SPL to de­ter­mine the dates of re­sum­ing the top flight and the first di­vi­sion,” SAFF said in the Ara­bic lan­guage state­ment posted on Twit­ter.

“The Saudi Ara­bia Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion ac­knowl­edges all the ef­forts of the Saudi Ara­bia gov­ern­ment to face the out­break of the COVID-19 which is a con­fir­ma­tion of their con­cern for the safety of every­one in the King­dom.

Just how up to speed the teams will be on their re­turn re­mains to be seen, but cues can be taken from other restarts around the world. While the Bun­desliga, for ex­am­ple, pro­vided a se­ries of highly tech­ni­cal matches after a very brief pe­riod of reac­clima­ti­za­tion, the English Premier League’s re­turn has been largely lethar­gic, with the lack of fans and at­mos­phere high­light­ing, per­haps even con­tribut­ing, to an in­evitable lack of its trade­mark in­ten­sity on the field. A sim­i­lar lack of en­ergy, at first at least, is likely to af­fect the SPL matches as well. For a start, the en­forced sus­pen­sion of play has been longer than any reg­u­lar pre­sea­son break and it will take the play­ers time to re­gain match sharp­ness.

Just as im­por­tant will be the fact that Au­gust hap­pens to be Saudi Ara­bia’s hottest month, with av­er­age tem­per­a­tures reach­ing al­most 45C. There is a rea­son why foot­ball is not tra­di­tion­ally played in the sum­mer. The heat and hu­mid­ity will un­ques­tion­ably lead to slower pace and you can ex­pect the av­er­age num­ber of min­utes that the ball is in play to drop, de­spite the in­tro­duc­tion of wa­ter breaks and in­creased num­ber of sub­sti­tu­tions.

Much will also de­pend on just how many of the matches have any­thing rid­ing on them, un­like at the usual start of the sea­son when teams are in­vari­ably rar­ing to go.

When the 2019-20 sea­son was in­def­i­nitely sus­pended, reign­ing cham­pi­ons Al Hi­lal held a six-point lead over sec­ond-placed Al Nassr. With only eight match days left, Al Adalah, Da­mac and Al Fateh were the three clubs stuck in the rel­e­ga­tion places.

Teams with lit­tle to play may have an eye on next sea­son al­ready, and the late res­o­lu­tion of the cur­rent cam­paign will im­pact the start of the next one.

Clubs will no doubt have to change tra­di­tional pre-sea­son train­ing prac­tices as they pre­pare for the 2020-21 cam­paign, pend­ing its start­ing dates.

For now, the clubs will have to do with re­turn­ing play­ers and Prince Ab­dul Aziz bin Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Sports Min­is­ter, has al­ready con­firmed there will be no changes to the quota of SPL clubs’ for­eign play­ers.

There will be lo­gis­ti­cal changes when SPL re­turns, with a pos­si­ble dis­pen­sa­tion of Video As­sis­tant Ref­eree (VAR) sys­tem.

Also, in line with new FIFA di­rec­tive since the re­sump­tion of com­pet­i­tive foot­ball after the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, the Saudi Pro League will al­low five sub­sta­tions for each team, with caveat that they are used over three in­ter­vals only, of which half­time does not count.

The de­ci­sion to re­sume do­mes­tic foot­ball was also tied in with the reschedul­ing of matches for the Saudi Ara­bian na­tional team.

“Based on the de­ci­sion of the Min­istry of Sports to re­sume all sports ac­tiv­i­ties and in line with the AFC’s pro­posed dates for the re­sump­tion of Asian com­pe­ti­tions and the re­sump­tion of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qual­i­fiers, we will co­or­di­nate the re­turn of clubs to train­ing as of June 21 in or­der to con­tinue the cur­rent sea­son based on a med­i­cal pro­to­col and strict pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sures,” added the SAFF’s an­nounce­ment.

HIGH­LIGHTS

Just how up to speed the Saudi Pro League teams will be on their re­turn re­mains to be seen, but cues can be taken from other restarts around the world.

While the Bun­desliga, for ex­am­ple, pro­vided a se­ries of highly tech­ni­cal matches after a very brief pe­riod of reac­clima­ti­za­tion, the English Premier League’s re­turn has been largely lethar­gic, with the lack of fans and at­mos­phere high­light­ing, per­haps even con­tribut­ing, to an in­evitable lack of its trade­mark in­ten­sity on the field.

Files/AFP

Saudi Pro­fes­sional League matches could re­sume in Au­gust — the hottest month of the year in the King­dom. Al­ready, foot­ball fans are ex­cited.

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