Just a decade ago, Saudi Arabia was standing proudly on top of Asian football. Al Ittihad had just won a second straight Asian Champions League final in dominant fashion and were preparing to establish a dynasty.
The national team was looking forward to the 2006 World Cup after qualifying with ease, defeating 2002 semi-finalists South Korea both home and away. After a decent group stage draw, there was confidence that the team would become the first from Asia to progress to the knockout stage for a second time. It didn’t happen and the team’s fortunes have dipped dramatically since.
However, as Saudi Arabia heads into 2016, there is a hope that this could be the year that the seat at the top table of Asian football became available once more; the year when long-term occupants South Korea, Japan, Iran as well as Australia, shift up a little to make some room.
Or maybe not. The AFC Under 23 Championships ended badly with no wins and just two points. In the opening two games against Thailand and North Korea, late goals cost the team four points. There was plenty to encourage in the performances but the team’s inability to finish the game after taking the lead was a worry, as were lapses in concentration at the back. In the past, there was a certain relentless, rapier-like quality to the attacks from the best Saudi sides. The youngsters will benefit from the experience but it is another failure at a continental tournament and this is becoming a habit after two poor Asian Cups.
There is only one way that the team can convince Asia it is ready to reclaim its status as a major power and that is to make it to a fifth World Cup. After failing to qualify, quite narrowly in 2010 and by considerable distance in 2014, the Saudis will never restore past reputations until the national team graces the global stage once more.
The first priority is a place in the final stage of qualification – thereby outdoing the 2014 attempt –and at the moment, that is on the cards. The Green Falcons sit on top of Group A and are likely to need only a draw away to the UAE in the final game in March. In truth, even if defeat sends the Saudis into second, it is likely the four-time World Cup participants will progress as one of the best four runners-up. But it is best to keep your own fate in your hands.
With Bert van Marwijk, there is genuine international experience at the helm though that has been the case before. If the Dutchman is given time, perhaps he will be the one. There is a genuine goalscorer in Mohammad Al-Sahlawi to call upon, youngsters such as Mustafa Bassas, Yasser Al-Shahrani and who already have experience but should be around for years to come. And there are rocks at the back such as Osama Hawsawi and Abdullah Al-Zori.
One of the differences between now and the glory days is that neighbours are improving – especially Qatar and UAE. Despite the strides made by these two, Saudi Arabia has one thing they lack: Fans, and lots of them. The passion for the beautiful game is huge and don’t just take my word for it. James Troisi, one of Al Ittihad’s star forwards, told Australian media last week about the reality of life in Saudi Arabia when you play for one of the country’s leading teams.
“Their fans and the way they are, it was crazy,’’ Al Ittihad’s Jame Troisi told Australian media earlier this week. “Everywhere you go they want to know you, that’s why a lot of the times I wore hats and glasses when I went out… You feel like one of the Kardashians, it’s full on, you do feel like something special. And an average crowd was about 45,000 – we’ve also had 70 to 80,000 crowds.”
The passion is there, the talent is too but that is not always enough. The New Year has started badly for Saudi Arabia but the good news is that there is plenty of time to get it right and it is all about the World Cup. First, it is about getting to the final round of qualification but for the country to really stake its claim to return to the status of powerhouse, it must be at Russia in 2018.