Saudi Arabia relying on close-to-home support at World Cup 2022

Qatar’s closest neighbours don’t have far to travel and may only have a short stay in the tournament

Team Saudi Arabia PLAYING football
Saudi Arabia will be the third-largest fan contingent at the World Cup[Darren Staples/Reuters]

Previous World Cup appearances: 5
Titles: 0
Best finish: Round of 16 (1994)
World Cup record: W3 L11 D2
Goals: 11
Biggest win: 2-1 vs Egypt (2018) vs Morocco (1994)
Player to watch: Firas al-Buraikan
Ranking: 51
Fixtures: Argentina (November 22), Poland (November 26), Mexico (November 30)

Saudi Arabia are no strangers to the World Cup, having played in five tournaments before Qatar 2022.

The Green Falcons will aim to replicate their best finish and move into the knock-out rounds, as they did in 1994. And they will have plenty of support given they are playing so close to home and in a country they share a border with.

After dominating regional football and winning the Asian Cup twice in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia finally qualified for their first World Cup in 1994 with an all-star team. Led by legendary forward Majed Abdullah, the team had players such as Said al-Owairan, Sami al-Jaber, Fahad al-Bishi and record-breaking goalkeeper Mohamed al-Deayea.

After losing their opening match to the Netherlands despite a solid display, Saudi Arabia started strongly against Morocco and sealed their first World Cup points with a 2-1 win. Their final game and chance to qualify for the round-of-16 came against Belgium, who were yet to concede a goal or lose a match in the 1994 tournament.

Five minutes into the match, al-Owairan scored arguably the most famous goal in Saudi history. The attacking midfielder started his run from well within his own half and befuddled five Belgians on his way to the goal, where he coolly slotted past the goalkeeper to write his name into the history books.

The Saudis held on for the next 85 minutes and made their way into the round-of-16.

Once out of the group stages, they met the mighty Swedes who took an early lead and did not allow the Saudis to press forward. Sweden won 3-1 but the Saudis won hearts of their supporters back home and of those who had turned out at the Cotton Bowl stadium in Texas.

Their golden run continued as they qualified for the next three World Cups, with a new crop of players, but could not replicate their 1994 performance and failed to win a single game. The 2002 tournament brought the ignominy of their biggest World Cup defeat, 8-0 at the hands of Germany.

The Green Falcons underwent frequent coaching changes during the 2010s and failed to qualify for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. They finally qualified for the 2018 tournament, and although they failed to progress, they earned a 2-1 win over neighbours Egypt.

Saudi football
Saudi Arabia registered just one defeat in their World Cup qualifying campaign, finishing ahead of Japan and Australia in their group [Ahmed Yosri/Reuters]

The current crop of Saudi players is relatively young, with an average age of just 23.

French coach Herve Renard, who led Zambia and Ivory Coast to African Cup of Nations titles in 2012 and 2015 respectively, took charge of Saudi Arabia in 2019 and has overseen their qualification for this World Cup.

The Frenchman has mixed things up in the squad since taking over, and has introduced several fresh faces picked from the under-23 squad, with Firas al-Buraikan making his senior team debut at the age of 19.

Al-Buraikan has already scored 11 goals and has now become a permanent fixture in the Saudi attack, with promising runs down the flank suiting coach Renard’s attack-from-the-wings gameplan in his preferred 4-3-2-1 formation.

Captain Salman al-Faraj, meanwhile, is key to the Saudi midfield. From helping out in the attack with his accurate passing, to keeping the opponent’s attacks in check, al-Faraj will hope his leadership can bring results.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently met the team and told them not to worry about the results, and instead to enjoy the tournament.

“I don’t want any of you to be under psychological pressure that will affect your spontaneous performance,” he told the players.

However, fans of the Green Falcons still have high hopes.

They will be the third-largest fan contingent at the World Cup, according to ticket sales figures, and are expected to descend upon Qatar in their thousands.

Although a first-round exit would be an expected result, it is unlikely their fans would accept it as wholeheartedly as their crown prince.

Source: Al Jazeera