2021 Review: The best of Arab football

It has been quite a year for football in Saudi Arabia, with the national team edging closer to the 2022 World Cup and Al-Hilal being crowned champions of Asia.

Here is our look back at the best of 2021.

Player of the Year: Salem Al-Dawsari

Some years it is difficult to choose the player who has risen above the others, but in 2021 it is an easier choice than usual. Salem Al-Dawsari has been the best player in the Saudi Professional League with the team that was crowned champions. He was the best player in the team that won Asia’s biggest club prize, the AFC Champions League. He was the best player in the team that has been the best performing in qualification for the 2022 World Cup. If Asia was having an award this year, then Al-Dawsari would surely be pictured lifting the trophy in some swanky ceremony in an Asian capital. As it is, he will have to make do with being named as the MVP of the AFC Champions League and, of course, this Arab News accolade!

The winger has not put a foot wrong all year and 2021 has been special with goals, assists and just all-round quality play at every level he has performed at.

Goal of the Year: Nasser Al-Dawsari (vs Pohang Steelers, Nov. 23)

There can’t have been a more influential goal in Asian club football for some time and it came in the biggest game of the year. This was the AFC Champions League final against Pohang Steelers in Riyadh, this was a game which Al-Hilal were desperate to win and become the first team in the history of Asian football to win four continental titles.

The 22-year-old, in the team to replace Yasser Al-Shehrani on the left side of defence, picked up the ball in the middle of the Pohang half, advanced and then from around 25 meters unleashed an unstoppable shot that flew into the corner of the net. This came after just 16 seconds and it basically won the game with the Pohang coach admitting that it destroyed his game plan. It was a great goal that won a huge game.

Coach of the Year: Herve Renard

There are not many national teams anywhere that have improved as much in 2021 as Saudi Arabia. When it started, there was work to do to even be sure of a place in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup. As the year ends, the Green Falcons are the form team in Asia and already have one foot in Qatar. The team have taken 16 points from six games, are four points above Japan in second and five above Australia in third. They will really have to mess up not to finish in the top two.

It is not just about the results, the win over Japan or the disciplined draw in Sydney, but the way this increasingly tight unit is playing. Renard has introduced a level of intensity not seen for some time and the team is now as hard-working as they come. New players come in and know what they have to do and it was encouraging to see the Frenchman send an U-23 team to the Arab Cup to gain experience and competitive international action while he sat in the stands and watched. It was a far-sighted decision but, for now, the World Cup is close.

Game of the Year: Al Fateh 5-5 Damac, Nov. 25

Just two days after Al-Hilal lifted the AFC Champions League trophy, there was a breathtaking game in the Saudi Pro League between two teams that don’t always make the headlines. In the previous 11 games, Al-Fateh had scored just 10 goals. In the previous 11, Damac had conceded the same number. There was little to suggest that this meeting would be the most thrilling of the year.

There is not enough space to go into details of what happened on that Thursday as a team fighting relegation that had lost the previous three games traded goal after goal with the team in second. It was 2-2 after 19 minutes with Damac ahead on the stroke of half-time and then 4-2 up just after the hour. Then Al-Fateh hit three in seven minutes but the visitors still found time to make it 5-5.

That it came from teams not part of the old elite and in the middle of the season meant that it was all the better.

Team of the Year: Al-Hilal

There is really not much of a debate with this one. When a team wins the domestic title and then goes and wins the biggest continental prize then it is hard to look elsewhere. Al-Hilal finished four points ahead of Al-Shabab with Bafetimbi Gomis scoring 24 times, but there is such strength in depth. The full-backs Yasser Al-Shahrani and Mohammed Al-Breik are one of the best pairs around. Then there is the skill and culture of Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari and the energy and drive of Mohamed Kanno. Add strikers like Gomis and Moussa Marega and there is real firepower and added to the creativity of Matheus Pereira. It is a formidable team that can go through three coaches in 2021 and still keep winning. It has been a year to remember for Al-Hilal.

Young Player of the Year: Nasser Al-Dawsari

While there are high hopes over Al-Taawoun’s teenage defender Sulaiman Hazazi, Al-Dawsari, who turned 23 last week, has established himself as an important player for both club and country. This year, the versatile player — who can do a job in midfield or defence — has made over 30 appearances in the league for the champions. His performances were so impressive that he earned a call up to the national team from Renard.

A debut came in a March friendly against Kuwait but a first competitive start came in the Green Falcons’ toughest game of the year: Australia in Sydney. It was a mature performance at left-back with the youngster coping well with the physical challenge presented by the Socceroos on their home turf. Throw in his crucial and spectacular goal in the final of the AFC Champions League and you have a spectacular season.

Development of the Year: SAFF World Cup plans

The proposal from the Saudi Arabia Football Federation that FIFA look into the possibility of holding the World Cup every two years instead of the current four has become a massive issue in football. It has divided the game with the reaction from Europe and South America largely negative, but with more support coming from Asia and elsewhere. It remains to be seen what will happen, but this idea that originated in Riyadh is going to run and run.


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