Garita ready to fire Al Faisaly to Cup quarters, eyes promotion to elite league

Saudi’s Al Faisaly football club was expected to bounce back to the Saudi Pro League at the first time of asking but fell short last season, finishing fifth. The team is in fourth place in the Saudi First Division – within striking distance of the leading pack.

For striker Arnold Garita, who arrived at Al Faisaly from Romanian club Argeș Pitești this summer, the aim for this season is non-negotiable.

“We know we have to achieve our main objective, which is to bring the club back to the Saudi Pro League,” Garita tells Al Arabiya English. “Al Faisaly is a club that should be playing at the highest level, and my personal goal is to give my maximum to the team so that we can return to the top division next season.”

Al Faisaly demonstrated its top-flight credentials in the last round of King’s Cup with a comfortable 2-0 win over Saudi Pro League side Al Tai. Garita scored the opening goal in a win that has set up a last-16 clash with fellow second-tier outfit Al Najma on Monday. They are the only two Saudi First Division clubs left in the King’s Cup. This means an encounter with one of Saudi Arabia’s elite clubs may await in the quarter-finals.

Garita says the prospect of mixing it with the Kingdom’s biggest stars is an exciting one, with a certain ex-France and Real Madrid striker (read Karim Benzema) at the top of his wish list of opponents.

“The next Cup match is an important one for us and we will give our all to go as far as possible in this competition,” Garita says. “It will not be easy. Our next opponent has a very good team and I think it will be a good match.”

He added: “If we go through to the next round of the Cup, I would really like to play against Al Ittihad because, as a striker, Karim Benzema is obviously someone who I greatly admire.”

This would not be the first time Garita would be up against an established opposition in a knockout competition. During his time in England with Plymouth Argyle, the Cameroonian striker led the lineup against a Liverpool side that included the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Divock Origi and Trent Alexander-Arnold in a narrow FA Cup defeat.

Plymouth's Cameroonian striker Paul Garita reacts after being penalised for fouling the goalkeeper during the English FA Cup third round replay football match between Plymouth Argyle and Liverpool at Home Park in Plymouth, south west England on January 18, 2017. (AFP)
Plymouth’s Cameroonian striker Paul Garita reacts after being penalised for fouling the goalkeeper during the English FA Cup third round replay football match between Plymouth Argyle and Liverpool at Home Park in Plymouth, south west England on January 18, 2017.

“It was great to play in England and with Plymouth and I had some extraordinary experiences there,” he recalls. “We achieved promotion and we went far in the Cup, playing against Liverpool. It was one of my greatest days as a footballer.”

Garita on life in Saudi Arabia

Garita had previously played across Europe – in France, Belgium and England. He is impressed with the level of football he has come across so far in the Kingdom.

“I find life in Saudi Arabia enjoyable,” Garita says. “Honestly, I had a lot of preconceived notions before arriving in the country, but I have met fantastic people here with an extraordinary mentality. So, I am very happy to be here,” he says, adding: “The football in Saudi Arabia is of the same quality as in Europe and all over the world, but the difficulty here is in terms of the temperature. It takes a while for the body to get used to it – even if you train in the evening.”

Garita has settled in quickly at Al Faisaly, having been helped by the presence of fellow French-speaking teammate, Tunisia international midfielder Larry Azouni – someone he describes as “an incredible player and an extraordinary person.”

However, perhaps most critical to Garita’s transition to Saudi football has been Yves Vanderhaeghe, the Al Faisaly coach who is also experiencing the Gulf for the first time after switching from Belgium. Garita believes his coach is definitely the right man to lead the club back to the Saudi Pro League.

“To work with this coach and his [support] staff is incredible,” Garita says. “The coach is a very humble person and listens to his players. He had a great career as a player [representing the Belgium national team 48 times] and I have been very impressed by his approach and his vision for football. With him, of course, we believe we can earn promotion.”

Roller coaster years

It has been a roller coaster couple of years for the club.

In 2021, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the club – nicknamed Al Annabi (The Burgundy) after their home colors – won their first-ever major trophy.

One of the most captivating King’s Cup finals in recent years saw Al Faisaly twice come from behind against Al Taawoun to eventually triumph 3-2. Cape Verde striker Julio Tavares capped a sensational hat-trick with a winning goal in the third minute of stoppage time to hand Al Annabi their maiden significant silverware.

It meant qualification for the AFC Champions League (ACL) and should have heralded the start of something special for the club. However, things quickly went downhill for Al Faisaly, and on a dramatic final day of the 2021-22 Saudi Pro League season, they were beaten 2-1 away at Al Hilal. The result handed the league title to the hosts, while the visitors were condemned to relegation to the Saudi First Division.

It was a shocking shift in fortunes for Al Faisaly, who just weeks earlier had been celebrating winning their Asian Champions League group. Indeed, as recently as February 2023, they were in the highly ironic and rather embarrassing position of playing in the last-16 of the continent’s biggest club competition while still languishing in the second tier of the Saudi Arabian league.

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