Euro 2024: One for Saudi Arabia in Kante, Laporte face-off | Football News

Euro 2024: One for Saudi Arabia in Kante, Laporte face-off | Football News

Kolkata: Spain and France in a semi-final of the European championship is a contest featuring former champions who have also won the World Cup and hence there will be a lot of famous names on either side. Both have defences that are hard to break down: Spain have conceded twice in five games and France once. But when it comes to goals scored, they are a study in contrasts. Five games in, France haven’t done that from open play while Spain have netted 11.

France midfielder N'golo Kante. (AFP)
France midfielder N’golo Kante. (AFP)

When the teams line up at Munich’s Allianz Arena on Tuesday (early Wednesday in India), it will also mean a lot to Saudi Arabia. Never before has the country’s league been represented in the penultimate round of a World Cup or European championship. That is likely to happen when Aymeric Laporte and N’Golo Kante face-off. Kante has started every match for France so far and if Laporte did not, it was only because he was not fit for the opener against Croatia.

Add Giorgino Wijnaldum to that list and this much is clear: at least one from the Saudi Pro League will play in Sunday’s final.

Not too long ago, players who were not in Europe, specifically its top five leagues, were not considered for international duty by the continent’s heavyweight sides. When David Beckham moved to Major League Soccer in 2007, England manager Steve McLaren said he was leaving the midfielder out. “I just felt that with David making a commitment to play in America for LA Galaxy it would be difficult for him to continue in the team.”

But proof of that changing is 14 players in Euro 2024 from clubs in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Pro League is the biggest source of players for the tournament outside Europe. And they came from only four clubs: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad. Backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), those clubs spent $957m in transfers last season, second only to the Premier League.

As per an AFP report on July 4, the sports ministry in Saudi Arabia has said the remaining 14 clubs in the top tier will also go private. Al Zulfi, Al Nahda, Al Okhdood, Al Ansar, Al Orouba and Al Kholoud will do that in August and the rest “at a later stage,” said the report quoting the ministry’s statement.

“With new signings and players coming in, it (the league) will surely become bigger and bigger,” Laporte, 30, told The Athletic. “The rhythm in competition is possibly a bit less — except some games against the top teams where I would say it’s the same.”

That could mean the number of players from Saudi Pro League in the 2026 World Cup will increase even if Saudi Arabia do not qualify.

There was more than a murmur of discontent when France coach Didier Deschamps got N’Golo Kante back after two years and in Spain when Laporte was preferred and teen talent Pau Cubarsi was not. More so when Laporte and Robin le Normand, both originally from France, were preferred as first-choice centre-backs. Because that meant barring the match against Croatia, Nacho, who has won the Champions League and La Liga, would start every match on the bench. With Le Normand booked out of the semi-final that will change.

Spain coach Luis de la Fuente justified his selection, saying Laporte is “one of the best in the world in his position.” Laporte’s ability to play out from the back possibly tilts the scale in favour of the player who joined Al Nassr from Manchester City in 2023-24.

Being adjudged player of the match in France’s first two games showed Al-Ittihad’s Kante, 33, has neither lost speed nor the ability to cover vast areas. Kante putting in shift after consistent shift is an important reason why Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne, Cody Gakpo and Memphis Depay have not been able to score against them.

In his hard-running, non-flashy but effective style of playing, Kante is a midfielder in the Deschamps mode. He can protect the ball and make important interceptions. Playing 451 minutes, Kante has covered 56km. Eight players have run more but they have all had more time on the pitch. Kante’s top speed of 33.8kmph is the fourth fastest in the France team, after Kylian Mbappe, Jules Kounde and Theo Hernandez.

“His performance? You saw him,” Deschamps said. “We were sure about recalling him. He is smart – on a technical level he has the capacity to read balls and project himself. He was really bright tonight and we needed that,” said Deschamps after France beat Austria. When Mbappe left that match due to injury, he handed the captain’s armband to Kante.

Going into the knockout rounds, France had made the least substitutions, 12. Spain had made the most, 20. Different approach, for sure, but one where the coaches’ faith in two players from the Saudi Pro League has been unwavering.

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