Today we profile, in reverse alphabetical order, the tenth team of the 32 teams which qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar—Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is participating in their sixth World Cup, having reached the Round of 16 in 1994 (mostly due to two great performances Papa witnessed in a 2-1 loss to the Netherlands and a 1-0 win over Belgium at RFK stadium) and departed in the Group Stage in all other cups. The Green, ranked 49th in the world by FIFA, are among the lowest ranked teams to qualify to Qatar, alongside Ghana #60, Qatar #51, Ecuador #46, and Australia #42.
Placed in Group C with Argentina, Poland, and Mexico, the Saudis know they are up against it to progress. The other three listed teams are on a different plane and much tougher competition than the Saudis regularly encounter. If you add the fact that all of the other three teams have national agendas that supersede mere progression, The Green will most likely depart at the group stage in Qatar too.
Saudi Arabia (AFC)
Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was inhabited over 125,000 years ago. It is a country of 830,000 square miles that occupies most of the Arabian Peninsula straddling the Asian and African continents. The country contains over 2,000 dormant volcanoes and 30% of its land is a contiguous sand desert. The Saudi desert climate has an average daily warm month temperature of 113F and the cold months average 32F with some variations in the coastal and mountainous regions. The nation is a unitary Islamic absolute monarchy with King Salman as its leader and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman daily taking on a greater role as his father’s health declines.
Islam originated in Saudi Arabia and its founder, Mohammed, united what had been a region of tribes under the banner of a single religion. After his death, a number of Muslim dynasties and caliphates ensued which brought Islam to much of the known world. By 1932, King Abdulaziz conquered and united the political factions of Arabia, and the House of Saud (the king’s ancestral house) has controlled the nation named after itself. The country of 38.4M has a petroleum-fueled $2T GDP and an HDI of 0.875 (very high), is ethnically 90% Arab and 10% Afro-Arab, 93% Muslim, speaks Arabic and boasts one of the world’s youngest populations with 50% of its people under age 25.
As an Islamic fundamentalist Wahhabist nation the country’s daily, social and cultural life revolves around a very orthodox, conservative, and many say repressive religious perspective which dictates most human activities. Given those beliefs and the tie between government and church, many of the Saudi Arabian sites of their rich historical heritage have been destroyed or been made unviewable.
Squad (which may change before the cup given injuries, form, and coaching choices—teams mentioned are subject to change given transfers): Goalkeepers— Amin Bukhari (Al-Nassr). Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), Fawaz Al-Qarni (Al-Shabab), and Mohammed Al Rubaie (Al-Ahli); Defenders—Hassan Tambakti (Al-Shabab), Abdullah Madu (Al-Nassr), Ahmed Sharahili (Al-Shabab), Ziyad Al-Sahafi (Al-Ittihad), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal), Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Abdulelah Al-Amri (Al-Nassr), and Moteb Al-Harbi (Al-Shabab); Midfielders—Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Hassan (Al-Nassr), Sami Al-Najei (Al-Nassr), Khalid Al-Ghannam (Al-Nassr), Abdulrahman Ghareeb (Al-Ahli), Abdulrahman Al-Aboud (Al-Ittihad), Abdulaziz Al-Bishi (Al-Ittihad), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), and Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Ittihad); Strikers—Firas al-Buraikan (Al-Fateh), Saleh Al-Shehri (Al-Hilal), and Abdullah Al-Hamdan (Al-Hilal).
Path to Qatar
Saudi Arabia were seeded into the second round of Asia Football Confederation World Cup qualifiers and placed in Group D with Uzbekistan, Palestine, Singapore, and Yemen. The Saudis moved on with a comfortable five-point margin atop their group and were then placed in Group B in the third round of qualifiers. Their group included Japan, Australia, Oman, China, and Vietnam. The tough group nevertheless became a runaway between Japan and Saudi Arabia with Australia only able to make it into the fourth round. The Saudis topped their group and qualified for Qatar by a single point because they only lost one game to Japan’s two overall and they split their home-and-away tie with the Japanese, winning at home thanks to an awful Japanese defensive blunder.
The Green employ a 4-3-2-1 system where possession is key and defensive wingbacks move far afield on attacking chances. But the side have employed other systems when needed and can park the bus while countering if the situation calls for it. Given their depleted ranks due to injuries to some key players and the legal troubles of a couple more, the squad may end up being thinner on experience than expected and then have to count on coach Herve Renard to find his newest formula. In fact, the team is hopeful that at least the injured will recoup in time making life easier all around.
Renard is the ex-French lower division professional player whose claim to fame, other than to coach thirteen different teams in 23 years, is having been the first coach to have won two African Cup of Nations coaching two different national teams Zambia 2012 and Ivory Coast 2015. The Saudis are hoping he can conjure up a path out of their tough group.
Winger Salem Al Dawsari is widely considered the best Asian player in Asia where foreign players populate most teams and mostly as strikers. He will be counted on to team up with (injured) striker Saleh Al Sheri to score the goals the team needs to progress and to keep opponents honest. Accompanying that duo are a number of Al-Hilal teammates who currently amount to about half the team. No current team players play outside of Saudi Arabia and their lack of regular international-level competition is one of their weaknesses.
Group and Tourney Prospects
The Saudis are in tough Group C with a tourney favorite, Argentina, and competitive teams in Mexico and Poland. Given the strength of this group and the ardent national agendas involved (Argentina and Messi’s last big cup-win chance, Mexico disrespecting Argentina in a good competitive meaning, Poland wanting to show those two teams they belong), the Saudis will be hard put to get out of the group. In fact, the other three teams might well need a goal differential advantage to progress, and the poor Saudis will have to pay the price.
Nevertheless, this is what FIFA allegedly wanted when they went from 16 to 24, and from 24 to 32, and for the next cup from 32 to 48 teams—to give the less developed football nations a chance to walk on the global stage and take a shot at the big boys. Papa, who is not a fan of the ever-increasing number of World Cup “finalists,” feels the tourney had settled into a nice rhythm at 32. So, let’s hope it works at 48 but that better minds prevail for the 2030 World Cup and thereafter and we revert to 32.
In short, while the Saudis might be somewhat competitive against the now injury-depleted Mexicans, who have yet to regain their form of just a couple of years ago, The Green will most likely be outclassed by Poland and Argentina and once again be group stage victims.
Photo: Saudi Arabian striker Salem Aldawsari, Shutterstock ID: 2163345773, by Alizada Studios