Saudi Arabia

Population: 26,400,000
Area: 1,960,582 km²
Capital: Riyadh
Language: Arabic

Saudi Arabia easily topped AFC final group A four points ahead of South Korea and qualified for Germany.
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Jan 18 S.Arabia v Sweden 1-1
Jan 21 S.Arabia v Finland 1-1
Jan 25 S.Arabia v Greece 1-1
Jan 27 S.Arabia v Lebanon 1-2
Feb 14 S.Arabia v Syria 1-1
Feb 22 S.Arabia v Yemen 4-0
Mar 01 Portugal v S.Arabia 3-0
Mar 15 S.Arabia v Iraq 2-2
Mar 28 S.Arabia v Poland 1-2
May 11 Belgium v S.Arabia 2-1
May 14 S.Arabia v Togo 1-0
May 26 Czech Rep v S.Arabia 2-0
May 31 Turkey v S.Arabia 1-0

Participations: (3) 1994, 1998 and 2002
Best placing: Second round 1994
Topscorers: Sami Al Jaber and Amin, 2 goals

Jun 14 - KSA v TUN  in Munich
Jun 19 - KSA v UKR  in Hamburg
Jun 23 - KSA v SPA  in Kaiserslautern

- Saudi Arabia in Group H
Jan Alsos: 4th place
Pierre Boisrond: 4th place
Ruud Doevendans: 4th place
Mike Gibbons: 4th place
Peter Goldstein: 4th place
Paul Marcuccitti: 4th place
Felipe Santos: 4th place
PREDICTION: First round exit


by Paul Marcuccitti

    In 1994, it was easy to believe that Asian and African nations were on the rise and that it would only be a matter of time before the World Cup was won by a team from either continent.

    There was plenty of supporting evidence. Nigeria dazzled, reached the last 16, and was minutes away from eliminating Italy; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also reached the last 16 with (I have to mention it at least once) Saeed Owairan scoring that wonderful goal against Belgium.

    For differing reasons, Asian and African teams have had trouble taking the next step. But the Saudis haven’t just failed to progress, they have declined. Saudi Arabia has worsened at every World Cup and now we don’t associate the gulf nation with Owairan’s goal, we instead have nightmares about that embarrassing 0-8 loss to Germany in 2002. In the 2004 Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia hit a new low by making a first round exit, with losses against Uzbekistan and Iraq.

    For the Sons of the Desert, it’s time for redemption. Qualifiers for Germany 06 suggested that they were well on the way as they defeated South Korea twice and won their group convincingly. But a few months later, the Saudis fired their Argentine coach Gabriel Calderon because he “did not achieve satisfactory results as head of the national team”. There’s an example of common sense prevailing.

    Calderon was replaced by Brazilian Marcos Paqueta and he is certainly achieving satisfactory results. At the time of writing, Saudi Arabia had won just one of its nine internationals since Paqueta took over – and that was an Asian Cup qualifier against lowly Yemen.

    OK, I’ll stop being sarcastic now. But surely something’s amiss when a coach takes a team from embarrassment to success and then gets shown the door?

    At least Paqueta came into the job with an understanding of the Saudi players. He had been the coach of Al-Hilal, one of the best clubs in the nation’s domestic competition. Not surprisingly, though, Saudi Arabia’s poor recent record means that he’s already under a lot of pressure.

    I can’t drop the subject of coaches without highlighting another bizarre decision. As already mentioned, Saudi Arabia had its worst ever World Cup finals four years ago. Its coach in Korea/Japan was Nasser Al-Johar and he was fired (of course) after that effort. But when Marcos Paqueta was given the top job in December, Al-Johar was re-appointed as his assistant.

    Irrespective of who leads the team to the World Cup finals, the Saudis will be in one of the tournament’s easier groups. First up is fellow Arabic nation, Tunisia. Ukraine and Spain complete Group H. The Saudis will be underdogs in every match but, with that draw, they must believe that they can better their woeful 2002 effort.

    It isn’t easy to get a feel for the quality of Saudi Arabia’s players. All are based in the Saudi league which is rarely seen in the rest of the world. Still, it can’t be the worst domestic competition. One of its top clubs, Al-Ittihad, rolled to an outstanding victory in the 2005 Asian Champions League and then gave Brazil’s Sao Paulo a fright in the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Championship before eventually losing 2-3.

    The strength of both Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal means that most of the Saudi squad will be drawn from those two clubs. That should surely mean that the players will have little trouble gelling.

    The battle for the number one goalkeeping jersey will be between veteran Mohammed Al-Daeyea (Al-Hilal) and Mabrook Zayed (Al-Ittihad). Under Gabriel Calderon, Zayed was impressive between the posts. Throughout the decisive second round of Asian World Cup qualifiers, he conceded just one goal in six matches.

    Al-Daeyea was a member of the Saudi squad in 1994, 1998 and 2002 and has won more than 170 caps. Marcos Paqueta brought him back as first-choice goalkeeper this year and I’m sure that Paqueta’s decision had nothing to do with Al-Daeyea being his ‘keeper at Al-Hilal.

    The Saudis’ star defender is Al-Ittihad full-back Hamad Al-Montashari. Last year he was controversially awarded the title of Asian Player of the Year. That title might have gone to other players as several were ruled out because they didn’t travel to the awards ceremony. Nevertheless, Al-Montashari played a crucial role in both Al-Ittihad’s Champions League success and Saudi Arabia’s World Cup qualifiers.

    Indeed, Al-Ittihad will supply most of Saudi Arabia’s defence. Al-Montashari should be joined at the back by experienced club mates Redha Tukar and Ahmed Al-Dosari (making the decision to replace Mabrook Zayed as first-choice goalkeeper even more surprising). Ahmed Al-Bahri, one of the few players likely to be selected from the Al-Shabab club, is another defender that will probably take part in Germany.

    The Saudis have a lot of midfield options but the hard-working and capable Mohammed Noor (Al-Ittihad) is a necessity. Noor will be determined to atone for his disappointing 2002 World Cup and he has since impressed for both club and country.

    Another important midfielder is Nawaf Al-Temyat (Al-Hilal), a former AFC Player of the Year. Mohammed Al-Shalhoub (Al-Hilal) is also a good midfielder who showed his ability to score in friendlies and in Saudi Arabia’s qualifiers. Khaled Aziz is another member of Al-Hilal’s midfield with a good chance of winning a place in the Saudis’ starting team.

    Other options include Saud Al-Khariri and Mohammed Haidar (both Al-Ittihad), and Abdel Aziz Al-Khathran and Omar Al-Ghamdi (both Al-Hilal).

    Up forward, Saudi Arabia will be relying on both the old and the new. The old is Sami Al-Jaber (yes he’s still around). Al-Jaber, another member of the Al-Hilal contingent, was recalled to the national side by Gabriel Calderon and has been retained by Marcos Paqueta. Al-Jaber’s experience will be valuable and Germany 06 will be his fourth World Cup finals.

    Partnering Al-Jaber is the new, Yasser Al-Qahtani. When Al-Qahtani was transferred to Al-Hilal from rival club Al-Qadissiyyah, he became the nation’s most expensive footballer. There’s a lot of talk about Al-Qahtani and you can expect to see epithets like “rising star” or “the one to watch” in your newspapers’ World Cup previews. Let’s just hope that he does well at the finals and plays his part in erasing the Saudis’ 2002 nightmare.

    The most likely forwards to join Al-Qahtani and Al-Jaber in the Saudi squad are the pair from (you guessed it) Al-Ittihad, Saad Al-Harthi and Mohammed Ameen. Apparently Al-Harthi’s nickname is “the Arabian Raul” so it would be fitting if he got a run against Spain.

    Mohammed Al-Anbar is another young forward that might find a spot in the Saudi squad and being another Al-Hilal player won’t harm his chances.

    The Saudis were excellent in qualifying but they have struggled in recent friendlies. Coaching instability can’t be helpful but the Sons of the Desert definitely have more depth and perhaps two or three more influential players than they had four years ago.

    Those players will desperately want to improve on the disaster of 2002. They should do that, but reaching the last 16, as the Saudis did in 1994, is probably beyond them.

    One thing is certain. After the tournament, Saudi Arabia’s coach will be fired.




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