Saudi Arabia rely on close support at 2022 World Cup | Soccer News
Previous appearances at the World Cup: 5
Better finish: Round of 16 (1994)
World Cup record: W3 L11 D2
Biggest win: 2-1 vs Egypt (2018) vs Morocco (1994)
Player to watch: Firas al-Buraikan
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 be aiming to replicate their best result and advance to the round of 16, as they did in 1994. And they will have plenty of support given that they are playing so close to home and in a country with which they share a border.
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 squad. Led by legendary striker Majed Abdullah, the team featured players such as Said al-Owairan, Sami al-Jaber, Fahad al-Bishi and record goalkeeper Mohamed al-Deayea.
After losing their opener against the Netherlands despite a strong performance, Saudi Arabia started strong against Morocco and sealed their first World Cup points with a 2-1 victory. Their last game and chance to qualify for the Round of 16 came against Belgium, who had 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 well into his own half and stumped five Belgians on his way to the goal, where he coolly passed the goalkeeper to write his name in the history books.
The Saudis held on for the next 85 minutes and progressed to the knockout stages.
Once out of the group stages, they encountered the powerful Swedes who quickly took the lead and did not allow the Saudis to advance. Sweden won 3-1 but the Saudis won the hearts of their home fans and those who had traveled to the Cotton Bowl stadium in Texas.
Their golden run continued as they qualified for the next three World Cups, along with a new generation of players, but could not replicate their 1994 performance and did not win a game. The 2002 tournament brought the ignominy of their biggest ever 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 eventually qualified for the 2018 tournament, and although they did not failed to progress, they secured a 2-1 win over neighbors Egypt.
The current generation of Saudi players is relatively young, with an average age of just 23.
French coach Hervé Renard, who led Zambia and Ivory Coast to Africa Cup of Nations titles in 2012 and 2015 respectively, took charge of Saudi Arabia in 2019 and oversaw their qualification for this World Cup.
The Frenchman has mixed things up in the squad since taking over and introduced several new faces chosen from the Under-23 squad, with Firas al-Buraikan making his senior 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 fitting the attacking game plan from coach Renard’s wings in his preferred formation in 4 -3-2-1.
Captain Salman al-Faraj, meanwhile, is key in the Saudi midfield. Whether it’s assisting in the attack with his precise passing or controlling the opposition’s attacks, al-Faraj hopes his leadership will bring results.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently met the team and told them not to worry about the results and enjoy the tournament.
“I don’t want any of you to be under psychological pressure which will affect your spontaneous performance,” he told the players.
However, Green Falcons fans still have high hopes.
They will be the third-largest contingent of supporters at the World Cup, according to ticket sales figures, and are expected to swarm Qatar in the thousands.
While a first-round exit is an expected result, their fans are unlikely to accept him as warmly as their crown prince.