by Trevor Whenham
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If Saudi Arabia were able to escape the first round, heads would certainly be turned. The team comes into the tournament facing a huge uphill battle. Few people give it any chance at all. It isn't a completely inexperienced team, however. It is playing in its fourth consecutive World Cup. In its first appearance in 1994, it was among the biggest surprises, beating Morocco and Belgium before losing in the second round to Sweden.
Since then, however, the World Cup has not been kind to the Saudis. The team has lost five games and played one to a draw and many of the losses were one-sided. It can't be said, though, that they don't deserve to be in Germany. The team was undefeated in its Asian qualifying group, including two wins over South Korea, the second place team that was a semi-finalist in the 2002 World Cup.
The Saudi soccer program certainly isn't lacking for funds. It has the best of facilities and resources. Those resources have largely been targeted, since 2002, on strengthening the defense. The team was truly awful defensively in Japan and South Korea. In its three games, the team was outscored by a combined score of 12-0. The low point came when Germany crushed the life out of the team by a laughable 8-0 score. The renewed efforts showed positive results in qualifying, but The Saudis will have to play at their absolute best defensively against Spain and Ukraine if they hope to make any kind of run deep into the tournament.
There is no job in all of soccer that is more thankless and fickle than that of the coach of Saudi Arabia. Marcos Paqueta, the Brazilian coach who took over the reins in December, is the 15th coach the team has had in 11 years. His predecessor, Argentinean Gabriel Calderon, lost his job after a poor showing in West Asian Games, despite having led the team on an undefeated World Cup qualification run.
Paqueta has the full support of the Saudi federation for now, but he will certainly be looking over his shoulder -- and packing his bags -- if the team doesn't have a strong showing. It doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to say that this lack of stability has hampered the growth of the national program.
Paqueta, however, has the advantage of not starting completely from scratch. Before moving to the national team, Paqeta coached Al-Hilal, one of the biggest club teams in Saudi Arabia. Saudi players do not play internationally (only two have ever played professionally outside of the country), so almost half of the squad comes from Al-Hilal, meaning Paqueta is familiar with them.
Saudi Arabia World Cup 2006 Odds: Bodog has assigned odds of 750-1 to Saudi Arabia to win the 2006 World Cup. Only one team in the tournament is a longer shot to take the title.
Strengths: The team got a boost in both goal production and morale when striker and captain Sami Al-Jaber ended his retirement and returned to international play. Al-Jaber was the star of all three previous World Cup squads. He became the first Asian player to score in two World Cups, after potting goals in 1994 and 1998. His impact was felt in the qualifying rounds as he contributed three goals. He provides the veteran presence and experience that this young squad will need to be competitive. Al-Jaber is joined up front by Yasser Al-Qahtani. He was transferred to Al-Hilal for a Saudi record of $10 million. These two players, along with Tamim Bandar, a versatile and dangerous midfielder who can move up front if needed, will key an attack that doesn't lack a scoring touch.
The Saudis have a long history of outstanding goalkeeping. Mohammed Al-Deayea, who earned a world record 173 caps, has retired. Al-Deayea was a Saudi legend that manned the goal since 1988, when he replaced his brother in the nets. His replacement is Mabrouk Zayed, who allowed only two goals in qualifying. He will be a strength for the team.
Weaknesses: The biggest weakness the team faces is a lack of meaningful international experience. Virtually all of the Saudi players stay home and very few foreign players have played in Saudi Arabia. It is very difficult to improve dramatically and move to a new level when your players are only playing against themselves. They are further handicapped by playing in a very weak qualifying group. With the exception of South Korea, none of the teams they play are even remotely competitive internationally. The jump from that level of play to the World Cup will be huge and more than likely overwhelming.
Saudi Arabia World Cup 2006 Outlook: Frankly, it isn't that positive. The team is 750-1 for a reason. The country is trying very hard to become competitive and is making strides, particularly on defense. Saudi Arabia is among the strongest teams that play on the Asian continent. The problem is that that continent really isn't very strong. Unless its opponents are off form, Saudi Arabia will be outclassed by Spain and Ukraine. Even Tunisia will be favored in the head-to-head duel. The team will only continue to improve and could conceivably surprise in one game, but the stars would have to align absolutely perfectly for the team to punch a ticket to the second round. Even if they did, they would be primed for an early exit.
Saudi Arabia World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Wednesday, June 14, Group H3 Tunisia vs. Group H4 Saudi Arabia, in Munich, 6 p.m.
Monday, June 19, Group H4 Saudi Arabia vs. Group H2 Ukraine, in Hamburg, 6 p.m.
Friday, June 23, Group H4 Saudi Arabia vs. Group H1 Spain, in Kaiserslautern, 4 p.m./p>
Updated Saudi Arabia World Cup 2006 News: