LONDON: Monday, June 27, 2022 will live long in the memory of Jeddah football fans. It was a bad day for clubs in the city but it could actually have been worse for fans of Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.
Followers of the former may be devastated as their team threw away a double-digit lead at the top of the Saudi Professional League and a perfect chance to win a first title since 2009, but as bad as that was, at least they can see their bitter local rivals have it worse. That is because Al-Ahli are dealing with something that has never happened before in their illustrious history: Relegation.
Experiencing that unprecedented event would have been even more painful if their fans could have heard their Ittihad neighbors celebrating becoming champions of Saudi Arabia.
That there have been no such celebrations won’t be a comfort for too long however. Al-Ittihad have become used to not winning the title but this is new territory for Al-Ahli as they enter the second tier for the first time.
There is still shock as to how it came to this. From 2013 to 2020, the Jeddah giants didn’t finish outside the top four and won the title in 2016 and finished second in the following two seasons. The warning signs were there though, with an eighth-place finish last time around. There were reports of dressing room unrest; too many foreign players came in who did not make the difference and the quality of the local talent was not what it was. After goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais moved to Al-Hilal in January, there are no Al-Ahli players who are regular starters for the national team.
Coaches have come and gone too, without making much of an impact. There were high hopes for Besnik Hasi. The Kosovan-Albanian had done a great job with Al-Raed and came in last summer. Despite a slow start to the season, the management persevered with the former Legia Warsaw, Anderlecht and Olympiakos boss in the belief that he would turn things around. It was a rare show of patience by a big Saudi Arabian club but it didn’t work. Despite a fairly gentle start in terms of opponents, Al-Ahli did not win any of their first seven. There were just two clean sheets in their first 16 games but the 2012 Asian Champions League runners-up were still clear of the drop zone in early March when Hasi was finally fired.
The replacement came out of left-field but Robert Siboldi was unable to offer anything different. In fact it was worse. The Uruguayan won the first game against Al-Tai but four points from the final six matches, at a time when relegation rivals were starting to collect points, meant that it all ended in disaster. Even so, had they scored just once against Al-Shabab in the final game then top-flight status would have been preserved.
What now? As well as the humiliation, the worst thing is the uncertainty. Nobody can say for sure when Al-Ahli will be back. If all goes well, the time spent out of the big time will be short but for every Newcastle United who bounce back stronger, there are teams such as Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday who spend years and years down before returning, if they return at all.
Former club president Abdullah Al-Batraji wondered if there was a chance that the planned expansion of the league from 16 to 18 teams might somehow take place this summer instead of next, thereby keeping Al-Ahli in the top flight. Such hopes are understandable but the route back to the top may be a little more traditional. Like any team that gets relegated, there are questions as to who will go and who will stay — especially as funding may be reduced.
One who fans will want to stay is star striker Omar Al-Somah. The Syrian striker still managed 10 goals in a struggling team and despite being 33, is very much in demand. There are links with clubs in Egypt, Qatar and elsewhere. The forward could also stay where he is, his current club would love that to happen, but a move does seem the likeliest and Al-Ahli are reluctant to see him move to another club in Saudi Arabia. It is also going to be hard to keep hold of Ezgjan Alioski, the other big success of the season after arriving from Leeds United last year. The Macedonian has been one of the standouts in the entire league, scoring six goals and assisting in nine. Many of the other foreign players did not impress.
There may be a shake-up in the management of the club but the big question is the coach. Siboldi was put in a difficult position in his first job in the region. The Uruguayan was not the right man to save Al-Ahli and is certainly not the right one to take them back to the big time. The question of who that may be has to be resolved, and the quicker the better.
The same can be said of Al-Ahli’s top-tier status. The quicker they return the better for football in Saudi Arabia, and even Al-Ittihad fans may agree with that.