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Feb 28, 2012

Rijkaard's Falcons face being grounded

The free-kick never got as far as the right-side of the area where Frank Rijkaard was marking his man. Instead, the Dutchman stood watching as Fuad Amin headed past Ed de Goey to give Saudi Arabia the lead in their first ever World Cup match, in Washington, in June 1994. The Asians, who only lost 2-1 due to a late goalkeeping error, made it to the second round. Netherlands went one stage further before being eliminated by Brazil and the cradle-rocking Bebeto.

Times have changed in the 18 years since. The baby that was the subject of the iconic ceremony now plays for Flamengo, while the still-proud father is on his country's 2014 World Cup organizing committee. Rijkaard has moved on too. Since July 2011 he has been the head coach of Saudi Arabia and knows that if he is to have a chance of meeting up with Bebeto two years from now he needs to get a result this Wednesday in Australia. That evening is the end of the penultimate round in the Asian zone of World Cup qualifying and it is when 20 teams become ten. Most issues have already been settled (Japan, Uzbekistan, Australia, Iran, Jordan and Iraq have already booked their spots) but there are four places up for grabs. Rijkaard is not the only well-known coach nervously awaiting his fate.

He is the biggest name though and Saudi Arabia are still - just about - one of the biggest in Asia. The Green Falcons not making the 2014 World Cup would not register as high on the football Richter scale as it did four years ago but not even reaching the final round of qualification would be a huge surprise. Strange things happen on February 29 and in many countries it is a day when girlfriends propose to boyfriends and, perhaps in football terms, underdogs can turn the tables on their hosts. That is what all back in the desert kingdom are hoping at least.

Melbourne can be a tough place to go though. If Ashton Kutcher had been in the city this week instead of July 2010, he wouldn't have tweeted that there was nothing to do there on a Wednesday evening. He wasn't the first film star to disparage the country's sporting capital. Fifties movie siren Ava Gardner reportedly remarked that Melbourne was a perfect place to make a film about the end of the world, or perhaps the end of the Saudi Arabian World Cup dream. A win would see the visitors, now sitting in second with six points, in the final stage. A draw or loss and then all attention moves to Muscat and the game between Oman and Thailand, two teams still in the running on five and four points respectively.

Rijkaard won't get too much blame if it all goes wrong. He has been in place less than eight months. That may be long enough to appreciate the tax-free pay packets (almost €8 million over a three-year contract) but only reveals that there are more deserving projects in the Kingdom that need attention, such as youth football and infrastructure. Rijkaard has talked at length about the lack of facilities, training programs and long-term vision in the country. If his team crash out, such urging could be his only legacy and given the rate that the country goes through national team coaches - there have been over 20 changes since 1994 - it would likely be a fleeting one.

The powerhouse tag that the team has had for so long - six out of the seven Asian Cup finals between 1984 and 2007 featured the Green Falcons - is slipping fast, if it hasn't fallen already. The failure to qualify for South Africa 2010 was followed by a first-round exit at the Asian Cup last year. The likes of Saeed Al-Owairan are no longer around. There is nobody in the current line-up with the skill or creativity to score a goal even approaching the level of his famous 1994 slalom special against Belgium, a strike that took Saudi Arabia into the second round.

Rijkaard has tried to introduce a more sophisticated tactical plan than has been the case in the past, opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation, despite doubts that there is the personnel suited to play with a lone striker. At the beginning of his reign, Yasser Al-Qahtani, the nation's star of the last few years, had that role but 'the Sniper' has flattered to deceive for too long. Now it is Naif Hazazi, but the 23-year-old 'Arabian Drogba' has still not recovered the form he showed before a cruciate knee injury in 2009 damaged the team's efforts to reach South Africa. A lack of goals - three of the four scored in the five games so far came in one match against Thailand- has cost the team which, just like last time, has dropped too many crucial points at home.

Their best chance may be the fact that Australia are through already. There has been talk in West Asia that the hosts will be keen to win regardless and eliminate a dangerous rival from the latter stages. That is doubtful. While Asia may be reluctant to demote the Saudis from their top level status, the Aussies only arrived in the confederation in 2006 and know little of the Saudi exploits before then. Despite that, after the disaster of failed Olympic qualification, the Socceroos will not want to lose on home soil.

If it goes wrong for Rijkaard, Paul Le Guen could be the one smiling. The former boss of Lyon, Rangers, PSG and Cameroon has a mixed CV but is in a better situation mainly because nobody in Oman really expects the team to progress to the final ten. After successive 3-0 defeats in Bangkok and Sydney the knives were out for the Frenchman but the team have turned things around with a win over Australia at home and a draw in Saudi Arabia. Oman have a tendency to perform reasonably well until the pressure is on however and being expected to defeat a decent Thai team and take advantage of a Saudi slip-up means that the pressure is definitely on now.

Then you have Peter Taylor. The one-time one-game manager of England is struggling to take Bahrain to the final round. The Reds reached the final play-off for the 2006 and 2010 edition but need to defeat Indonesia, while also hoping Iran defeat Qatar and that in the process, a goal difference deficit of nine can be wiped out.

It is unlikely but it could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the former Spurs star who, despite protestations that the country's political situation is nothing to do with him, looks increasingly uncomfortable in his role as a national team coach unable to select some of the nation's best players. A number of stars were imprisoned for their part in pro-democracy protests a year ago, protests that are still ongoing and still being harshly suppressed. The fact that Taylor's boss as the head of the Bahraini FA is a member of the ruling royal family suggests that keeping football out of politics is easier said than done.

Far to the east in Seoul, the situation is simpler. If South Korea lose to Kuwait and Lebanon don't at the hitherto pointless UAE then Choi Kang-Hee's tenure will be one of the shortest in history. The Taeguk Warriors fell to a shocking defeat in Beirut in November, a result that cost Cho Kwang-Rae his job. Korea are expected to win fairly comfortably but being one mistake or moment of magic away from World Cup elimination can do strange things to players.

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