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World Cup 2022: Saudi Arabia out to restore lost pride

After a near faultless qualification campaign under Frenchman Herve Renard, this year's World Cup is about restoring pride and respect on the international stage
Saudi fans arrive at Qatar's Hamad International Airport ahead of the World Cup on 19 November, 2022 (Reuters)
By in
Adelaide, Australia

Forgotten in the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup is that Saudi Arabia defeated a Mo Salah-led Egypt to record their first win at a World Cup since 1994.

What isn't forgotten, however, is their dire performance in the opening game against the host nation when they were embarrassed in a five-goal mauling.

It's not the first time the Green Falcons have suffered an opening game humiliation, with Germany showing the Saudis no mercy in 2002 when they walloped them 8-0 in their opening game.

'The group might just be too complicated to navigate'

Wael Jabir, football analyst

Such losses do irreparable harm to the reputation of those on the receiving end, which is why for Saudi Arabia this year's Qatar World Cup is about restoring pride and respect on the international stage.

After a near faultless qualification campaign under new manager, Frenchman Herve Renard, they have never been better prepared to achieve that.

In Renard they boast one of the finest international managers outside of Europe, while the team contains a number of the players who went to Russia and have the experience of a World Cup under their belt.

So as they seek redemption in neighbouring Qatar, who should await them in the opening game? No less than Argentina and Lionel Messi. Opening matches don't come much tougher.

Challenges ahead

Once that is out of the way, and the hope will be they come out of that opening game with their confidence undented, the challenges keep coming with Robert Lewandowski and Poland, followed by the final match against Mexico.

"It's definitely not an easy task to compete in a group where you face the world's best player trying to lead Argentina to the title, then one of the most in-form forwards in Robert Lewandowski and a talented Poland side overall then a Mexico side who seem ever present at World Cup round of 16," Wael Jabir, a respected voice on Middle Eastern football, told Middle East Eye.

"Unfortunately for the Saudis, the group might just be too complicated to navigate. Avoiding heavy defeats a la Germany in 2002 and Russia in 2018 is the primary objective, any points collected will be a huge bonus."

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While some may quiver at the prospect, a coach like Renard won't back away from the challenge. If you're looking for redemption, then what better way to achieve it than against one of the world’s best.

If they need any inspiration, they need look no further than their Asian rivals Iran when they took on Messi and Co. at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Like the Green Falcons, Iran were unfancied before the game but produced a spirited performance that is still talked about to this day by Team Melli fans. Had they taken their chances, and they had a few, they could easily have drawn or won that encounter.

As it was a late Messi goal sealed a 1-0 win for the South American powerhouse.

It's the type of backs-against-the-wall performance Iran were known for under Queiroz, and while Renard's side aren't as pragmatic they have shown in two recent 0-0 draws against Ecuador and the USA that they can shut teams out.

It must be said, however, Argentina present a significantly stronger challenge than either of those two nations.

Lack of goals

The concern for them is at the other end of the pitch. Shutting teams out is one thing, but it goes without saying that if you want to win matches you need to score goals, and that is Saudi Arabia's Achilles heel heading into this World Cup.

In their 13 matches in 2022 they've won only three and scored just six goals. They've also been held goalless in five of their past seven matches. Although not everyone is concerned.

"Honestly I'm not too concerned given the nature of the World Cup and their group," Jabir continued.

"They have been taking their chances when they get them and I think that's what they need to keep doing. You will not get five or six big chances against the teams they face, so if they can remain composed and take the one or two chances that they do get, that's all you can ask for."

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Such sentiment was echoed last month when powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the team that no one expected them to secure any points.

"I know our group is difficult in the World Cup, and nobody expects us to secure a win or a draw. So what I want to say is just be comfortable, play your game and enjoy the tournament," Mohammed bin Salman said.

Still, like his Qatari counterpart, Renard will be having sleepless nights trying to solve his goal scoring woes.

Firas Al-Buraikan and Saleh Al-Shehri have alternated at the point of the attack during qualifying, but neither has produced the type of consistent form to nail down that spot as their own. That is only made harder by a lack of opportunity at club level, where foreign strikers are often preferred to home-grown options.

Al-Shehri has managed only 35 of a possible 630 minutes at Al Hilal this season, and while Al-Buraikan has fared slightly better, he has still played only 247 of a possible 540 minutes for Al Fateh.

It is a perennial problem for coaches all across Asia, with domestic coaches preferring foreign players in attacking positions, stifling opportunities for local players and creating headaches for the national team.

That is a longer-term problem to solve, and one well outside Renard's remit.

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