Similar to any other football culture which exists globally, Saudi Arabia has its own set of legends, jokes, clichés, stereotypes, memes, and of course stories. Most notably of which – is the recurring theme – the conversations surrounding the Saudi national team as it speeds through a speed-bump, a rocky surface, or is on the verge of hitting an iceberg that will surely put a dent in the nation’s hope when it comes to football. The delivery is different but the essence is the same.
“He’s preparing his duffle bag of caps.”
“He’s on the phone about to rip his clothes to reveal his superman outfit.”
“He might be pumping gas at the local gas station about to floor it to wherever the Green Falcons may be.”
This Saudi man – a myth of proportions that would force Chuck Norris to stop and acknowledge his presence is none other than Saudi national coach Nasser Al Johar.
Al Johar, a legend with his namesake – Al Nassr FC – whose career stretched approximately two decades from the early 60s to 80s – was a utility right-back for the Knights of Najd, at times playing so high up the pitch which would result in him being considered a second striker or winger on paper rather than his traditional position that he played for both club and country.
His admirable style of play and goals made the late Prince HRH Faisal Bin Fahd – President of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation at the time – give him a free pass to any stadium in the Kingdom for life upon his retirement – an honour in itself.
This very flexibility as a player was further amplified in his coaching career as well. Al Johar was part of the coaching staff in the club’s youth system, moving along the ranks until he reached the staff of the first team. Al Johar proved his worth as a utility man while being asked to manage several tasks growing from trainer, goalkeeping coach, assistant coach, and head coach all within the space of a decade. Rather than shy away from new challenges, Al Johar juggled various tasks with little experience gallantly and without hesitation.
Yet, his role as head coach for Al Nassr wasn’t one that would be glorified in the history of the club, as the closest he got to glory was a silver medal on a few occasions, but the potential of a Saudi coach with little to lean on other than his time as a player was reason enough for him to be hired as assistant coach for the Saudi national team in their participation for the 2000 Asian Cup in Lebanon.
The Asian Cup couldn’t begin with a more difficult fixture for the Saudis. The defending champions were to play Asian superpowers – Japan, a team that had beat them in the 92 final and stole the opportunity of a three-peat after winning the 84 and 88 Asian Cup successively. Head coach Milan Máčala, afraid of the offensive potency of the Japanese, played a back-line of five defenders. The choices weren’t any better either, with the likes of Tariq Al Muwallad playing his first international game – and his last in any international competition – as well as playing forward Talal Al Mishal as a makeshift left-back. The result ended in a catastrophic 4-1 thrashing by Japan, and Máčala was out the door within the next 24 hours.
The SAFF with little time left to name an immediate replacement handed the reins to assistant coach Nasser Al Johar, and from that moment history was made. Saudi barely squeezed out of Group C in second place after a 0-0 draw with Qatar in the second fixture while going on to thrash Uzbekistan 5-0 in their last group game. The style of play of the Saudis however changed dramatically within a fortnight, moving from a cautionary rigid style to a more fluid and simple flair which was reminiscent of Al Johar and his teammates style of play during their prime. The full Al Johar effect wasn’t highlighted until the knockout stages, when Saudi Arabia beat Kuwait in a 3-2 extra time thriller in the quarter finals, and brushed aside South Korea in the semis thanks to double from Talal Al Mishal that would have made the Asian Cup legend Majed Abdullah himself proud – remember; Al Mishal played as a left back in the group opener. The miracle run came short in the finals against Japan thanks to the Blue Samurai’s fortune after Hamza Fallatah – who set a record in scoring 33 goals in all competitions the same year – had missed a penalty early in the game that could have levelled the score after Japan had scored in the 30th minute mark.
The notion of bringing in a replacement to patch things together after letting go off a coach with an attribute that of ‘world-class’, isn’t new. After all, legendary coach Khalil Al-Zayani – who led the Green Falcons to their first ever Asian Cup title – had taken over under similar circumstances after Mario Zagallo failed to deliver. Mohammed Al-Kharashy was called in three times in moments of meltdown, patching up after unsuccessful stints of Leo Beenhakker, Jorge Solari, and Carlos Alberto Parreira, respectively. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that Al Johar was shortly relieved of his duties after the Asian Cup and replaced by Slobodan Santrac. The arrangement with the Yugoslav didn’t materialize, and quicker than a blink of an eye Al Johar was back to his post to lead the Saudis in their 2002 World Cup qualification campaign.
And yet again, the miracle man did not disappoint as he took of a team that had only collected one point from a possible six; the remaining six fixtures with Al Johar in charge saw the Saudis pick 16 of a possible 18 points while qualifying as group leaders. Al Johar also led his men to their first ever Gulf Cup on home soil, which was won on behalf of an intense final against Qatar.
The SAFF, impressed with the chemistry crafted by their caretaker coach, decided to maintain him as the one to lead the national team in the World Cup.
An example of Murphy’s Law was observed as Al Johar’s squad came tumbling down in the group stages, with three losses via Germany, Cameroon, and Ireland while conceding 12 goals without any answer. Saudi Arabia never put up a fight. The rhythm was off, with players looking lethargic and out of sync with each other as well as their own bodies. Al Johar was once again out of the door, even before the plane bringing the Saudi team back home landed in Riyadh. The SAFF had came to the conclusion in the harshest of ways that the Saudi coach was only a temporary solution to paper the cracks until the Federation could find a suitable name to build a team for future.
World football had changed, and Nasser Al Johar wasn’t a part of that new world. The simplistic approach of the manager that had once gained applauds and recognition couldn’t match teams that approached the game with more sophistication.
Al Johar was called in as caretaker three more times after the disaster witnessed in the World Cup of 2002, but the entirety of all his remaining three spells had equalled that of his second and longest spell as head coach of the national team.
Ironically, as the conclusion settled in, the man dubbed as the “Panadol (a pain relief, similar to Tylenol, found in Middle East) of Saudi football” and the “emergency manager” was hired by the SAFF as a technical adviser, and the coaching chapter of Nasser Al Johar was finally over.
In a time where opinions of fans are broadcasted throughout the world with the click of a button, and pundits give their opinions openly without any facts to support their argument, there was no place for any panic substitution of managing in international football. The tradition of hiring Saudi coaches as a last measure and stories of achievement in the bleakest of circumstances is long gone, and there could be no better man to feature as its last protagonist. The man who donned many hats – both in figurative and literal sense – had taken off his last one and accepted a new life as a regular individual with no more miracles to perform from behind his desk.