When the Saudi national team qualified for the 1994 USA World Cup, football enthusiasts were raving their side would do well. Having bested the most powerful football teams of the Arab World and Asia to qualify, Saudi Arabia seemed well-placed to advance to beyond its group.

And the Saudi team delivered - at least for a while - their persistence taking them through to the second round before being knocked out by Sweden 3-1.

But despite such modest gains, the Saudi team’s achievements went quickly downhill.

By even the most charitable standards, they performed miserably at the 1998 world cup in France and the 2002 competition held in Korea & Japan.

After the disastrous performance in 2002 which saw the Saudis lose 8-0 to Germany, the frustration of supporters became obvious when they stopped supporting their team and amazingly enough, started cheering for their opponents.

Cautious optimism

Defender Hamad al-Montashari
could lift fans' spirits

Four years later, Saudi fans are slowly regaining trust in their team touched with a note of realism about their level of play compared to the other European and South American teams.

Many are pinning their hopes on two of the Saudi squad’s brightest players, defender Hamad Al-Montashiri of local side Al Itihad and Mohammed Al-Anbar of long-time rivals Al Hilal.

Both have earned titles; Al-Montashiri was voted Asian Footballer of 2005 and Al-Anbar is referred to by Saudi fans as 'the Brazilian', with some comparing him to football genius Ronaldinho.

Nevertheless, Saudi fans are not asking for much from this tournament.

SAUDI ARABIA FACTFILE
Nicknames: 'al-Sogour' (The Falcons) or 'al-Akhdar' (The Green)
Previous World Cup
appearances:
3
Star players: Hamad Al-Montashiri, Mohammed Al-Anbar

Most say they would be content if their side were to score at least one goal, which they failed to do in 2002.

And of course all are keen to avoid a repeat of the 8-0 humiliation inflicted by Germany.
 
Omar Wahba, 27, a banker at Riyadh’s Saudi British bank and long-time football fan says supporters of the Saudi team just can’t shake the memory of goalless defeats four years ago.
 
"I think the Saudi team is one of the weakest teams in the World Cup and should do well to avoid defeats which defined them in the last tournament," he says. "Let's just hope for the best."

Media pressures

The team faces tough matches
against Ukraine and Spain

The defeats of 1998 and 2002 are also weighing heavily on Saudi media coverage.

In the build up to this year's tournament, news reports have noticably toned down their coverage from previous years, avoiding labels such terms as champions and invincible in favour of more realistic expectations.

The media has also increased its 'positive criticism' of the players, management and the results of friendly matches ahead of the first game on 14 June against Tunisia.

The Saudi team is expected to do well against Tunisia but may be seriously challenged against other teams in its group, Ukraine and Spain.

Rumors have circulated in Saudi Arabia about the cash rewards that are to be offered to the players and the Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta if the squad does well.

Enthusiasm

With posters, Saudi flags, and television and print ads showing the star players of the squad, many Saudis are enthusiastic.

Fans are hoping for a strong
opener against Tunisia

Supporters have for decades followed international football diligently and local cup competitions have pulled in a near-fanatical following.

But whether the enthusiasm will persist after the first game is a question that can only be answered by how well the team does.

Nora al-Damigh, a 22-year-old student of English Translation, says she and her friends will cheer the side on when the Saudi team takes to the pitch.

"Personally, I think most women will watch the Saudi team on their first match," she says.

But she warns if the Saudi team performs poorly, interest may quickly wane.

"Will we continue to watch and cheer through the second and third game? That will depend on the result of the first match."