Diaz's Saudi downfall: This week in Middle East football
A first championship title after five years, reaching the Asian Champions League final and returning to continental dominance isn't enough for the board of Al-Hilal.
Less than a year after the Saudi football giants signed Argentinian Ramon Diaz as the team's coach, and while the club sits at the top of the league table, they sacked him after a series of unsatisfying results - with the loss to Iran's Esteghlal in Oman the final nail in the coffin.
Diaz opened the 2017/2018 season positively. The team was winning and enjoyed a four-point gap ahead of second place, but then something happened. The absence of injured Brazilian star Eduardo Costa and the lack of form and sudden injury of Syrian striker Omar Khribin had their impact - and the team spiralled into a negative run of three matches without victory at the end of January.
With Salem Al-Dawsry's transfer to Spanish side Villareal and the absence of Nawaf Al-Abid, Diaz was left with a very thin roster.
At the beginning of February things seemed to be returning to the ways of victory, but again fate had other things in mind. A 2-2 draw against arch-rivals Al-Nassr in the Riyadh Derby, a 0-0 draw with Al-Ain in the Champions League and a tight 85th-minute victory over Al-Shabab created an extremely tense atmosphere around the manager.
On February 20, Al-Hilal went to Oman to play Iranian mega-club Esteghlal. Despite the AFC requirement from Saudi and Iranian clubs to play each other in the club's original home grounds, games between teams from these countries are taking place in neutral stadiums.
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It was a must-win for Al-Hilal, and moreover, it was a must-win for Diaz.
The AFC organised a minute of silence in memory of 60 victims of an aircraft accident in Iran two days earlier. While Esteghlal players stood together, Al-Hilal players remained in their game positions, reportedly due to an order from the club's board. Karma didn't take long to pay them back for the perceived disrespect.
In front of fewer than 10,000 fans, Esteghlal beat Al-Hilal 1-0 thanks to a goal from Iraqi midfilder Saad Abdulameer. Al-Hilal were left with just one point out of six from their first two Champions League matches. The situation became impossible for Diaz.
Al-Hilal is the biggest club in Saudi Arabia, and counted as one of the country's strongest ambassadors. A loss to an Iranian opponent is not an option, especially at a time when tension between the two countries is so high. Diaz's destiny was sealed. Against the will of the fans and the players, Diaz was fired at 3am, six hours after his final match with the team.
He thanked the club and the fans on Facebook, but eventually, when you coach one of the biggest clubs in Asia, there is no room for mistakes - especially against Iranian teams.
In Al-Hilal's reality show, Diaz had to go.
Football returning to Basra
Eight months after Jordan became the first national team for five years to play in Iraq, Saudi Arabia landed on Wednesday for a friendly. The team's arrival in Basra for a match came as part of an Iraqi effort to lift the ban on international football games to take place on its soil.
|Saudi Arabia have paid tribute to one of the most important causes in Middle Eastern football nowadays - bringing international football back to Iraq|
More than 60,000 passionate fans filled the renovated and modern Basra Sport City stadium, and saw the Iraqi team playing their hearts out - hammering the Saudis 4-1, thanks to a goal from debutant Emad Mohsen, a brace from Mohannad Ali and an own goal by Saad Alyami.
Saudi Arabia scored one through Hassan Fallatah, with the Saudis far from top form and fielding a second-string lineup, having played Moldova at the beginning of the week.
The main point of this match, however, wasn't the result. Iraq's FA is desperate to prove that it is possible to host international football games in the country, and after buiding brand new stadiums all over the nation, they are inviting several countries to come and play.
FIFA's representatives watched the match alongside the AFC president himself, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim.
Since the match against Jordan last June, Kenya visited the city of Basra in October 2017, and now Saudi Arabia have paid tribute to one of the most important causes in Middle Eastern football nowadays - bringing international football back to Iraq, a country that is crazy for football and deserves to host and watch their clubs and national team on home soil.