Criticism for Mancini’s decision to leave before Saudi Arabia’s elimination deemed “unacceptable”.

Estimated read time 5 min read


The Saudi Arabia coach, Roberto Mancini, experienced an early departure from the Asian Cup for multiple reasons. The pressure surrounding the second-round match against South Korea may have been overwhelming and triggered memories of the 2020 European Championship final between his Italian team and England.

The situation was familiar: one team leading 1-0 but becoming increasingly defensive in the second half, ultimately resulting in a late equalizer and a loss in a penalty shootout. In this instance, it was the Italian team who experienced this in Qatar and, similar to Gareth Southgate, has faced criticism for their defensive tactics. As Hwang Hee-chan stepped up to take the final penalty and secure South Korea’s spot in the quarter-finals with a 4-2 shootout victory, Mancini began walking towards the tunnel. The initial response in Riyadh suggests that he should continue walking.

The president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, Yasser al-Misehal, stated on TV that the coach’s departure is not acceptable and they will have a discussion with him to understand the reasons behind it. He also mentioned that the coach will be given the opportunity to explain his perspective before any action is taken.

The team came close to a major victory against highly favored opponents at Education City Stadium with only 90 seconds left. Throughout most of the game, the Green Falcons outplayed the star-studded South Korea in a cautious match. However, everything changed when Saudi Arabia’s offensive player Salem al-Dawsari, known for scoring a stunning goal against Argentina in the 2022 World Cup, was substituted. The Korean team then put on relentless pressure, constantly sending crosses into the box and taking shots, with the Saudi team desperately blocking and making impressive saves. It seemed inevitable that an equalizer would occur, especially after Cho Gue-sung’s 99th-minute header, which came close to scoring earlier in a similar position. Despite Korea’s inability to finish the game in extra time, they were able to secure the win with perfect penalty shots.

Dejection for Saudi Arabia players after their defeat by South Korea.View image in fullscreen

Experts in Saudi Arabia expressed frustration that the previous coach of Internazionale and Manchester City would not have had the courage to leave early if he was still with Italy, the team he left in August to go to Riyadh. He made a public apology, admitting that he was not aware that the game was not over. Stress and excitement can cause unexpected behavior even from a seasoned coach, but his team’s coaching staff stood together, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, watching the field. Additionally, over 40,000 spectators in the stands were also focused on the shootout.

Mancini’s recent actions on social media have been compared to his bold statements during the initial press conference of the 24-team tournament. At the start of the Asian Cup, Mancini made no apologies for excluding three prominent players – Salman al-Faraj, Sultan al-Ghannam, and Nawaf al-Aqidi. He accused them of attempting to selectively participate in matches, but they vehemently denied these claims. However, now Mancini himself is being accused of not fully dedicating himself to the team’s goals.

In the world of football, it would have been insignificant if Saudi Arabia had progressed and were preparing to face Australia on Friday. While the three-time champions did not impress overall, they were moments away from advancing to the quarter-finals and starting to show signs of peaking at the right time. In their first game, they were losing 1-0 to Oman until the 78th minute, but managed to win in a thrilling manner. Their 2-0 win against Kyrgyzstan was relatively easy, mainly due to their opponents having a player sent off early in each half. Their third match against Thailand ended in a 0-0 draw, as both teams had already secured a spot in the next round. However, only conceding one goal in the group stage – a penalty – was a solid foundation to build upon.

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Hwang Hee-chan scores the penalty that secured South Korea’s victory.

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Mancini asserted his dominance over the team, not only by excluding well-known players. He sought out talent from smaller clubs and gave opportunities to young players. During the match against Korea, 21-year-old Abdullah Radif was substituted in at half-time and scored a goal within 34 seconds, proving his skill and causing issues for the opposing team. Similarly, during the match against Thailand, 16-year-old Talal Haji made an appearance on the field and came close to scoring a goal. These are promising signs for the team’s future, and it is worth noting that even Misehal expressed satisfaction with the team’s technical performance in the tournament.

Mancini also expressed mixed emotions, stating, “I am both thrilled and disappointed.” He continued, “I am delighted with the progress we have made. Our month of hard work together was crucial in uniting us as a team. However, we still have room for improvement.” The team’s current focus is on qualifying for the 2026 World Cup and preparing for the 2027 Asian Cup, which will be hosted by Saudi Arabia.

There is still a lot of work to be done, but if Mancini wants to prevent another early departure, he may need to offer more apologies.


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