Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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Saudi Pro League- Green Falcons To Soar Like It's 1994?

Logo of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (via Wikipedia)

Given the massive investment and the resulting, considerable, rise in media coverage of the Saudi Pro League, there's one side of the debate that has had little to no attention given its due. The potential effect on the Saudi Arabian national side… 



Anyone who's been following developments from the desert will know that Roberto Mancini has been installed as manager, mere days after his resignation from the Italy job, replacing Hervé Renard as the man in charge of helping the Green Falcons soar after a group stage exit at the last World Cup. 


Of course, this was before they announced themselves in dropping the first shock of the tournament in beating eventual champions Argentina to kick off Group C. They couldn't keep it up though, defeats to Poland and Mexico meant they made a relatively short and early trip home. But could that be about to change? It certainly seems hard to imagine that the country's Public Investment Fund hasn't splashed all that cash without expectation of a wider return, at least in the long term, on both the continental and world stages…


Perhaps the time to truly judge will begin in 2027, when Saudi Arabia hosts the Asian Cup for the first time. Their recent-ish record, which is to say between 2004-2019, has offered just one hint of a return to their former glories, when finishing runners-up to Iraq in 2007. This came amid a hat-trick of group stage exits in 2004, 2011 and 2015, plus a run to the last 16 in 2019. 


Winning the thing will most likely form the bulk of Mancini's initial to-do list, his new employers not entirely unreasonably pointing to the comparative golden years of 1984-2000 as inspiration. In which time al-Khodur not only managed to triumph at the first time of asking, beating China to cap off their maiden outing with goals from Shaye Al-Nafisah and Majed Ahmed Abdullah, but repeated the feat four years later on Qatari soil, albeit on penalties- Abdullah once more among the scorers as they held their nerve 4-3.


They couldn't quite make it a treble in 1992 though, hosts Japan ripping up the script to beat them in the final. Roll on to 1996, and the Saudis took the chance to upset the home nation in getting past the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi on penalties. A second 1-0 defeat to Japan, in the 2000 final in Lebanon, rounded off a remarkable five consecutive appearances in the AFC Asian Cup Final.


And it seems the Saudi FA have decided twenty-seven years is a long enough wait for a bit of silverware! Consider this from the Arab News shortly after the first of many subsequent such statement signings by the Pro League and by extension its clubs…


Less than a month after Cristiano Ronaldo arrived to play for Al-Nassr, and two since the Saudi national team’s fine performances at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the news cements the country’s status as a major hub of the world’s most popular game on the largest continent.

It was always likely that Saudi would get the official nod as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) conducted its congress in Bahrain’s capital of Manama.”


Even that early on it seemed there was at least one eye on future further celebration of national success. For his and their sake, then, the new manager must be hoping they get it! Incidentally, any curious Geordies were actually able to go and watch his first game in charge this past week. With St James' Park having been the venue for Saudi Arabia's friendly against Costa Rica on September 8, ahead of which Mancini seemingly said all the right things (even though his side went on to lose 3-1).


"I believe this is a great opportunity for me, to experience football in a new country, especially with the growing popularity of football in Asia . The presence of top players in the Saudi Pro League indicates the potential for growth in the national football scene."


Saying nothing of his rumoured £25 million a year contract, adding grist to the mill of many a Saudi- sceptic! Domestic success would most likely go some way towards justifying burning the back pocket of such already well- tailored trousers, of course.


But to fully earn such riches his paymasters will undoubtedly expect massive improvement on what is an equally important international front, though their initial planned bid to co-host the 2030 World Cup alongside Egypt and Greece is now seemingly on the back-burner. Not unjustifiably given concerns over the country's hardly exemplary human rights record as well as more practical concerns over climate so soon after Qatar 2022.


Plus, current FIFA rules state that a member country from the AFC- Asian Football Confederation- isn't allowed to take on the job anyway, precisely because the preceding tournament was handled by one of their own, not that that particular technicality had stopped Gianni Infantino- that man again, eh?- hinting that it could happen before the bid collapsed.


Still, as a new power player, it's not unreasonable to expect that at some stage in the near future the Saudis will try again, whether on their own or alongside one or more willing collaborators, it stands to reason.


And were they to do so it’s not unreasonable to expect a team of domestic prospects, with the benefit of playing with and against more than a few choice European and South American imports, to give going all the way a decent crack. Barring a Chinese Super League- remember that?- style implosion…


At which point a look at their record of going up against the best Europe and South America nations seems prudent. Having spent a long time in the wilderness, they first qualified for the World Cup of USA '94 and managed a fairly creditable canter to the last 16, making it out of their group behind the Netherlands having lost to them in their opening game, Fuad Anwar Amin the man to net his country's first World Cup goal.


Next up was a 2-1 win over Morocco, Anwar Amin again getting in on the act after Sami Al-Jaber had opened the scoring. While that result deserves more of a significant place in the footballing consciousness of the country, it's not much of a surprise to find that what immediately followed it is probably the moment most think of in seeing Saudi Arabia pop up within World Cup retrospectives!


Not without good cause too, of course. Belgium being sent on their way is one thing, but the quality of the goal to dump them out courtesy of Saeed Al-Owairan seals it. The man himself would later remember of the momentous occasion that "Before the game, I called everyone from my family, including my mother, and asked them to pray for me and the national team . We wanted to have a great game and we needed everyone's support and prayers."


On which evidence the man upstairs could hardly be said to have failed to listen! To this day that remains the point at which the green- shirted Falcons soared highest, subsequent appearances in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018 and 2022 ending at the group stages.


Just how tall an order it proves for them to even get close to matching or eclipsing their eventual ' 94 exit to Sweden could, and maybe should, ultimately be the yardstick by which the PIF's extensive financial outlay is scrutinised. That’s given the scale of ambition it suggests, saying nothing of the associated column inches!

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