x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Asian Champions League: Michel Preud'homme guides the ship at Saudi side Al Shabab

The playing career of the Belgian manager intertwined with the country he now coaches in, writes Ian Hawkey.

Michel Preud'homme was once mentioned as a possible candidate to coach Porto and AC Milan. John Thys / AFP
Michel Preud'homme was once mentioned as a possible candidate to coach Porto and AC Milan. John Thys / AFP

It is probably Saudi Arabia's most famous moment in international football.

Five minutes into the 1994 group phase match against Belgium, Saeed Al Owairan picks up the ball deep in his own half.

He sets off on a safari. Several slaloms, shifts of gear, and snakey switches of direction later he is taking on the opposition goalkeeper, slipping a shot past him.

Commentators proclaim it one of the greatest World Cup goals in history.

The virtuosity of the run is what makes the goal a YouTube classic. The fact Al Owairan's last obstacle was the goalkeeper voted the finest at that World Cup is a footnote, although one that gilds the achievement.

Followers of the Belgium national side would confirm it needed something special to beat Michel Preud'homme during that hot June in the United States.

Though he was 35 by then, Preud'homme's performances in earlier group matches against Morocco and Holland had been breathtaking.

Eighteen years later, Preud'homme tends to be reminded more regularly of the great goal he let in during the 1994 World Cup rather than the dozen demonstrations of agility and penalty box authority which put his team into the last 16 with the best defensive record of that tournament.

That is because the expatriate destination Preud'homme has chosen for the latest phase of his coaching career is Saudi Arabia.

Memories of Al Owairan's wizardry are especially vivid at Preud'homme's club, Al Shabab, of Riyadh. Al Owairan played his whole career there.

The 54-year-old Belgian has now assumed a leading role in advancing the professional reputations of Saudi Arabia's modern virtuosos.

The team he lines up against Al Jazira on Tuesday evening in Abu Dhabi in the Asian Champions League are the Saudi champions and if their recent domestic form has stuttered a little, Preud'homme has plenty of credit from the way he guided the club to the title last term.

It had been a long pursuit by Shabab. They first offered him the job back in 2010. At that stage, the competition was intense for a coach who had delivered a first title for 25 years to Standard Liege in 2008 and then taken Ghent to second place in the Belgian league, their highest finish for over half a century.

He was mentioned as a possible candidate at Porto and even AC Milan.

He ended up moving abroad, the short distance to Twente Enschede in Holland. He gained them a runners-up spot, and wide approval, being elected the Dutch Eredivisie's Coach of the Year by his peers.

His long player career – he was still at school when he made his debut for Standard in 1977, and he played his last game, for Benfica, 22 years later – provided him with the status and perspective for coaching, although he says he had to adjust some of his habits.

"As a goalkeeper, you have to change your outlook from perceiving the game always from a point of view that is behind the rest of the players," he has said.

In Belgium and Holland, he earned a reputation for giving responsibility to young players, and flair to his teams.

His opposite number today, Luis Milla, came to the Arabian Gulf with some of the same fame, from his work in charge of Spain's national age-group teams, but has little of Preud'homme's wide experience of managing in club football.

Milla faces a taxing assignment for his debut Asian Champions League match.


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