ROAD TO KOREA/JAPAN
|Saudi Arabia convinced early on by winning their preliminary group
with a 100% record and then by winning their final group ahead of Iran which sent them
to the World Cup.
here for details
|Participations: (2) 1994 and 1998
|Best placing: Second round 1994
|Topscorers: Sami Al Jaber and Amin, 2 goals
|Sami Al Jaber is a veteran from both the two
previous Saudi Arabian World Cup teams, 1994 and 1998. He operates mostly as center-forward or
attacking midfielder and scored 8 goals during the qualifiers.
VERDICT: First round exit
|Saudi Arabia is the questionmark of this group. Will we see
the exciting team of '94 or the less exciting from '98? They seem to be the weakest side in the group
and very little indicates that they will avoid bottom position.
ASIA'S TOOTHLESS TIGERS
by Matthew Monk
Even though they have qualified for the last two World
Cups, and put up a strong performance at USA 94, Saudi
Arabia are still the least well known qualifiers for
the first World Cup to be held in Asia. If you were
to ask most football fans what they know about the
Saudis, they will probably mention Sami Al-Jaber or
Saeed Owairan (and that goal against Belgium), may
mention old Confederations Cup tournaments in Riyadh,
and almost certainly will talk about millions of
dollars of oil money, pumped into the development of
the game by success hungry Saudi princes.
Yet few will have any idea how the Saudis came to be
in Japan and Korea, and fewer still will have in their
team against Germany on June 1. The Saudis are in a
way the most mysterious and enigmatic of qualifiers
this time around. Emerging from the convoluted Asian
qualifiers just ahead of Iran, Saudi Arabia are almost
a throwback to the old days. Still drawing almost
wholly on home based players with limited experience
of international football, the Saudis are in a way the
closest thing this World Cup has to the Kuwait's or
Haiti's of yesteryear - unknowns, there to make up the
numbers and pay lip service to this 'world' cup.
Of course this Eurocentric and blinkered view ignores
the fact that Asia has had successful continental club
and nations tournaments for decades, and that Saudi
Arabia regularly supply teams in the very final stages
of them. Indeed, Saudi Arabia are a regional football
superpower, financially backed by big business as well
as mega-rich individuals with stadia and training
facilities the envy of South America and Africa, and
as good as anything in Japan, Korea, the USA or
Europe. Only in history and culture does Saudi Arabia
differ to the big European nations. Where England or
Italy has developed a football structure and culture
over generations, Saudi Arabia has tried to buy it
over the last twenty years. And to some extent it has
done it. The Saudis will line up this summer in their
third successive World Cup Finals (something England,
France and Portugal cannot boast) and although the
glory days of 1994 seem far off, they go to Japan and
Korea with more expectation of success than Ecuador,
China or Belgium, and with an open group to play in.
Drawing Germany, Ireland and Cameroon is a good group
for the Saudis, containing as it does three 'hit and
miss' teams all more than capable of off days. None
of these three teams is going to win the World Cup;
indeed none may even pass round two. But they can all
certainly beat each other, and should beat Saudi
For a team that has gone backwards in the past eight
years though (as Saudi Arabia has) ending up in such a
group may be a blessing in disguise. Yes, they are
rated by most as fourth favourites, but should the
games be tight, low scoring affairs, then the 1994
factor may come into account again. Eight years ago,
in the USA, the Saudis reached round two after beating
Morocco and Belgium, through a combination of
fantastic individual skill and rapid acclimatisation
to the draining heat of an American summer. This
summer the world will be coming to Asia, in the Saudis
backyard. Now while East Asia is a lot wetter and
more humid than the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi
players should be used to playing in such conditions,
given their experience of pan-Asian club competition.
Certainly you would expect the Saudis to able to cope
with it better than the Irish - just remember Steve
Staunton positively melting in the heat of Miami in
That just leaves the Saudis to find the individual
skill to propel them through. Here is where it gets
harder. Some of the old stagers are still around,
like Sami Al-Jaber. He recently had spells at
Nottingham Forest and Wolverhampton Wanderers in the
English First Division (really the second division,
not the Premiership), and while this is hardly
international level, he at least will be able to tell
his teammates what the Irish will be like. Around
him, Nawaf Al-Temyat (the current Asian Footballer of
the Year) will provide solid support if fit, but you
are left feeling that there is no spark here to lift
the team if the going gets tough.
In qualification Talal Al-Meshal and Obeid Al-Dossary
certainly banged in the goals, scoring 20 between
them, to go with Al-Jaber's eight. Indeed, the Saudis
scored 47 goals in qualifying, which will give them
some hope. It must not be forgotten though that 30 of
these goals came against Vietnam, Bangladesh and
Mongolia in the first group stage - hardly
earth-shattering opposition. In the final qualifying
group they were much shakier, losing to Iran and
drawing with Bahrain, all of which meant they only
avoided an intercontinental playoff with Ireland (and
certain elimination) on the very last day.
Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia the other three teams
in their group hitting form at the moment, and this
looks like continuing as the World Cup gets closer.
The Irish are ready to take on anyone after victories
over Holland, Russia and the Czech Republic, Cameroon
were recently crowned African Champions again, and the
Germans are after all still German. More potently,
Germany's recent 7:1 victory is a sign of their
intent. Hurt by a 5:1 drubbing at English hands and
the mocking derision of the whole European continent,
Germany want to prove they are still a world power.
The draw has been kind to these four teams, as the two
qualifiers will compete against Spain, Slovenia or
Paraguay for a place in the quarterfinals, on the face
of it winnable games. Will Saudi Arabia be there?
You have to say no, although stranger things have
happened in the past (Costa Rica in 1990 anyone?). In
reality, the Saudis will have to depend on low
scoring, defensive games, where they make sneak a late
penalty or set-play to see them through. It is very
unlikely to happen. And no matter how much oil money
is spent between now and the big kick-off, Saudi
chances this summer look very slim indeed.
A BRIEF WORLD CUP HISTORY
by Jan Alsos
The Saudis made their first appearance in 1994 and exceeded all
expectations topping their first round group featuring Holland. The memorable solo-goal from
Saeed Owairan which beat Belgium rivalled any goal scored in World Cup history. They
eventually bowed out to Sweden in the round of 16, but Saudi Arabia had showed the world
that teams from the Gulf region could play the game even at the highest level.
A less exciting team showed up in 1998. The Saudis were never really in the race for another
second round place grouped with France and Denmark. Only one point was taken - against
newcomers South Africa.
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