Saudi Arabia used to qualify for World Cups as a matter of course, but failure to make 2010 and 2014 had fans desperate to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Led by Bert Van Marwijk, they did. Just. There was some luck along the way, but a last-day victory over an already qualified Japan did the trick and put the Green Falcons above Australia on goal difference. Yet qualification was followed by chaos, as Van Marwijk was replaced by Edgardo Bauza – who then left himself. Currently, former Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has taken up the head coaching role.
Key Moments in Qualifying
The opening game against Thailand in Riyadh was proving to be a frustrating experience until the softest of penalties six minutes from the end allowed Nawaf Al Abed to secure the points. Five days later, the midfielder scores twice more from the spot to give the Saudis a come-from behind win against Iraq.
With 11 minutes remaining, Van Marwijk’s men are trailing at home to Australia. Then Nasser Al Shamrani strikes to earn what will turn out to be a vital point won.
A 2-1 defeat in Japan prevents Saudi Arabia from breaking free at the top of the group.
Needing to beat Japan at home in the final game to qualify, winger Fahad Al Muwallad makes the second-half difference and the 1-0 victory is celebrated wildly. But days later Van Marwijk announces he is leaving, with Edgardo Bauza replacing him.
After just five games in charge, Argentinian Bauza was sacked as Saudi coach.
Saudi Arabia World Cup Group
In Group A, Saudi Arabia are in a group containing the hosts Russia, Uruguay, and Egypt, lead by Mohamed Salah.
Saudi Arabia World Cup Friendlies
Saudi Arabia recently played two friendlies as preparation for the World Cup, a 3-0 victory against Moldova, and then a 4-1 loss to Iraq at the end of February. They then drew against Ukraine, but got hammered by Belgium four days later. Two wins against Algeria and Greece followed, and then two losses to Italy and Peru nearly concluded their World Cup friendlies. Finally they lost to Mats Hummels and Germany on the 8th of June.
26th February – Moldova (won 3-0)
28th February – Iraq (lost 4-1)
23rd March – Ukraine (drew 1-1)
27th March – Belgium (lost 4-0)
9th May – Algeria (won 2-0)
15th May – Greece (won 2-0)
28th May – Italy (lost 2-1)
3rd June – Peru (lost 3-0)
8th June – Germany (lost 2-1)
Saudi Arabia World Cup Fixtures
Saudi Arabia will play in the opening game of the tournament against the hosts Russia on the 14th of June. This will be followed by matches against Uruguay on the 20th and Egypt on the 25th.
14th June – Russia
20th June – Uruguay
25th June – Egypt
Juan Antonio Pizzi, age 49 (07.06.1968)
Even by Saudi standards, the recent coaching merry-go-round was shocking. Van Marwijk, who had been in place for two years and was building a solid team, left just days after the Russian deal was sealed. In came Bauza, who had taken over the United Arab Emirates just weeks previously. A month later, the Argentinian had also said his goodbyes. Juan Antonio Pizzi, who lead Chile to the Copa America Centenario in 2016, has come in to fill the void.
Nawaf Al Abed was cool and composed throughout the final stage, and he scores as well as creates. When given the opportunity, Fahad Al Muwallad is exciting.
Osama Hawsawi has been in the centre of defence for a long time – although some feel for too long.
Nasser Al Shamrani was Asian Player of the Year in 2014 but he started just one game in qualifying.
Van Marwijk gave a first call-up to right-back Mohammed Al Burayk and the 25-year-old performed well under pressure.
Saudi Arabia World Cup Squad
Final 23-man squad –
GOALKEEPERS: Mohammed Al Owais (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Mosailem (Al Ahli), Abdullah Al Mayouf (Al Hilal).
DEFENDERS: Mansoor Al Harbi (Al Ahli), Yasser Al Shahrani (Al Hilal) Mohammed Al Breik (Al Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al Ahli), Osama Hawsawi (Al Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al Nassr), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al Hilal).
MIDFIELDERS: Abdullah Al Khaibari (Al Shabab), Abdulmalek Al Khaibri (Al Hilal), Abdullah Otayf (Al Hilal), Taiseer Al Jassim (Al Ahli), Houssain Al Mogahwi (Al Ahli), Salman Al Faraj, Mohamed Kanno (both Al Hilal), Hattan Bahebri (Al Shabab), Salem Al Dawsari (Al Hilal), Yahya Al Shehri (Al Nassr), Fahad Al Muwallad (Al Ittihad).
FORWARDS: Mohammad Al Sahlawi (Al Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al Ahli).
The Unanswered Questions
What effect will the change of coaches have?
Losing the experienced Bert Van Marwijk, who took his homeland to the 2010 Final, was huge. Not only did he know the players, they knew him and his system. Edgardo Bauza barely had time to get to know the squad, but friendly performances against Portugal and Bulgaria ended with much criticism and his departure proves that there are few seats as hot as that of Saudi Arabia’s coach. Time will tell if Pizzi can be as effective in this role as he had been with Chile.
Is Osama Hawsawi up to the job?
At 33, the centre-back and captain came into the team just after the 2006 World Cup but his ageing legs have been showing a little of late.
What about international exposure?
Almost all the Saudis play at home and this is a problem. Nine were loaned to La Liga clubs in a marketing move to increase the league's visibility in the Kingdom, but it did not work as they spent all their time on the bench.
Follow the World Cup with the Multimedia Group! With live English radio commentary on Joy 99.7 FM radio, Akan radio commentary on Asempa 94.7 FM and livestreaming on Myjoyonline.com, we've got you covered all-tournament long.