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Saudi King's Cup: Al-Ittihad salvage season, refereeing controversy, VAR and local politics

Al-Ittihad hero Rabeaa Sefiani lifts the Saudi cup in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Saturday, May 12, 2018 (Photo by SPA)
by Samindra Kunti, AIPS Media

JEDDAH, May 14, 2018 - Al-Ittihad won the 2018 Saudi cup running out dramatic 3-1 winners over underdogs Al-Faisaly in extra-time in a final that had plenty of ingredients: refereeing controversy, VAR and local politics on the sidelines.

Refereeing controversy - Saudi referee Fahad Al-Mirdasi’s World Cup had been appointed to officiate the cup final, but was forced to stand down on the eve of the final by the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF). "The Saudi Arabian Football Federation, with the blessing of the Saudi Olympic Committee, has decided to remove referee Fahad Al-Mirdasi from refereeing the King's Cup final and to refer him to the General Investigations Bureau," read a tweet by SAFF's official Twitter account. "Mark Clattenburg has been appointed to referee the final instead.”

World Cup in jeopardy for Al-Mirdasi - - FIFA, the world’s governing body, has selected Al-Mirdasi for the World Cup in Russia as one of a three Saudi match officials, but following allegations of corruption at the referee’s address by Saudi sports daily Al Riyadiyah, his World Cup may be in danger. The matter was referred to Turki Al Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, who suspended Al-Mirdasi. SAFF has begun an investigation. FIFA is monitoring the situation.

Al-Ittihad the favorites - The two-time champions of Asia and Jeddah-based club were the sky-high favorites going into to the final, notwithstanding a difficult season. They finished ninth in the Saudi Professional League, three places and two points behind Al-Faisaly, a small club from the city of Harmah City, in the Riyadh province.

Save the season - This season Al-Ittihad were not granted an AFC club license after not meeting financial obligations to players, coaches and backroom staff. The sanction prevented the club from participating in this season’s AFC Champions League. They also had a restriction on the number of foreign players they could employ. Saudi’s General Sports Authority, however, helped the club to get back on track and return to an even keel financially.

Longest half-time show - Saudi king Abdullah bin abdulaziz al saud arrived shortly before half-time. The halftime show, which lasted 45 minutes, was a lengthy hommage to Saudi Arabia’s head of state, involving sword dancers, singing and light elements using the crowd actively to form images and depictions. The national Saudi symbol - the coat of arms, two swords below a palm tree - was drawn in the night sky with lights. The faces of the current king, the crown prince and the former king were all depicted in the stands. The show culminated with a fireworks display.

Late equaliser - The home team came good in the final, backed by vociferous support, but were made to sweat for their victory. On the brink of half-time, Adbulrahman Al-Gamdi, left unmarked by Al-Faisaly’s central defender Igor Branco, opened the score with a header from inside the box. Both teams applied a conservative approached with a number six dropping into defense, leaving plenty of space in the midfield. Al-Ittihad enjoyed most of the possession, 56%, during the match, but the underdogs created the chances. Rogerinho missed a sitter at the far post in the 62nd minute and his team squandered another big chance with eight minutes left. As Al-Ittihad had a hand on the King’s cup, Saeed Awadh Al Yami equalised in the 92nd minute from close range.

Rabeaa Sefiani the hero - Saeed Awadh Al Yami’s goal was preceded by a penalty incident. Referee Clattenburg applied the VAR through an on-field review to correctly award a free kick on the edge of the box instead of a penalty. In the 100th minute, the final turned on the video assistant referee when substitute Rabeaa Sefiani’s wrongly disallowed goal was overturned. He drove the ball home from inside a crowded penalty box and Clattenburg studied the situation at the touchline to signal a goal after a brief delay. Sefiani turned hero and the home support went into a frenzy. With bodies drained in the 30 degrees humidity, Al Faisaly tried to mount a final assault, but Abdulaziz Al-Aryani sealed Al-Ittihad’s victory with a 116-minute tap-in on the counter.

Praise for the VAR - “Thank God for the video system,” said Sefiani to Saudi television. “It intervened and ensured that the right decision was made. I knew it was a good goal before it was shown on video but I was very happy to see that confirmed. It was a tough game but we came through at the end.” Clattenburg had also studied two penalty appeals from Al-Faisaly during the game, but didn’t award the spot kicks. VAR is used in the semi-finals and final of the Saudi cup, but not in the domestic league. The replays the referee uses to decide the incident, are shown on TV.

The foundation of SWAFF - On the sidelines of the final, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) was founded on the sidelines of the Saudi Cup final. The new body will be presided by SAFF president Adel bin Mohammad Ezzat. “The South West Asian Association aims to develop the sport in Asia and hold many tournaments and events on an annual basis,” said SWAFF in a news release in Arabic, ran by Saudi sports newspaper Al Riyadiyah. “It includes the West Asian Association, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.”
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