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May 23, 2006

Rich but looking for a pedigree

Saudi Arabia's mission this summer is clear: arrest the worrying decline in the quality of their World Cup performances.

Their first finals in 1994 was a dream debut, as they beat Belgium and Morocco en route to the last 16, where they took Sweden to extra time. France 1998 brought a more straightforward capitulation but that was nothing compared to the embarrassment of four years ago, when their three straight defeats included an 8-0 drubbing by Germany.

Part of the frustration at the national team's lacklustre performance comes from a desire to make the Saudis one of the great powers of world football.

There is a huge amount of money sloshing around football in the country, yet it struggles for recognition, something increasingly dismal World Cup displays do nothing to help. A successful World Cup would go a long way towards putting Saudi football on the map.

The country's image is also hindered by the fact that all 23 players are based in the domestic league.

Despite the globalisation of football coverage, few broadcasters have bothered to transmit the action from the largely empty stadiums of Riyadh, Jeddah and elsewhere, although Al-Ittihad have raised their profile through their recent dominance of the Asian Champions League, winning the last two editions.

When Sami Al-Jaber, the country's greatest-ever player, did move abroad, it was in the form of an unsuccessful six-month stint at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Hardly the stuff of dreams.

This anxiety, coupled with the Saudi Federation's almost comical refusal to look at the big picture has led them to chop and change coaches like Jesús Gil in his pomp, ignoring the team's serene progress to Germany.

They are on their third coach since the start of qualifying after Gerard van der Lem was sacked for a disappointing 2004 Asian Cup, then his successor Gabriel Calderón paid the price for his team's sub-par showing at last December's (wait for it..) West Asian Games.

All this despite the pair guiding the team to first place in their group ahead of South Korea and going unbeaten in 12 qualifiers.

Barring another last minute firing and hiring, they will have a safe pair of hands guiding them into the tournament. The Brazilian Marcos Paqueta knows Saudi football well having coached Al-Hilal, and won both the World Under-17 and Under-20 Championships with Brazil in 2003.

A fairly depressing spring schedule of friendlies has brought defeats at the hands of Portugal, Poland and Belgium, along with perhaps the worst result of the bunch - a 2-2 draw with Iraq.

At least Paqueta has had ample opportunity to test every member of his squad, and the mood has been brightened slightly by a 1-0 victory against Togo. Any win against a fellow World Cup team must be considered a decent outcome, even if the African minnows are among the rank outsiders.

The Saudis' main creative input should come from three players. First is Sami Al-Jaber, who at 33 is well past his best but still pulls the strings from a kind of Teddy Sheringham role.

Next, the poor sod unfairly lumped with the 'new Maradona' tag, Mohammed Al-Shlhoub. A left-footed attacking midfielder he might be, but the best player since Pelé he unsurprisingly is not, but his tidy technique and imagination could create some openings for his team-mates.

Last comes Nawaf Al-Temyat, a former Asian Player of the Year who can potentially be his best country's player. However, his explosive shooting, pacy runs and pinpoint passing have all been compromised by persistent knee trouble.

If he can turn back the clock to his peak in 2000, Al-Temyat can carry this team a long way, but such a turn of events looks distinctly unlikely.

As for recognisable players, remember that tracksuited goalkeeper who fished the ball out his net eight times against Germany? He's back. Mohammed Al-Deayea has appeared in every one of Saudi Arabia's World Cup matches, and should make a fourth finals appearance despite spending qualifying as understudy to the impressive Al-Ittihad man Mabrouk Zaid.

The 33-year-old has benefited from the surprising dismissal of Calderón, as new boss Paqueta has taken a shine to him. Al-Deayea certainly adds experience. He has more caps than anyone in international football history (179 and counting), and has also conceded more World Cup goals than any other man currently in action (a whopping 25 in ten games).

Defensive star Hamad Al-Montashari was crowned Asian Player of the Year for 2005, albeit in somewhat farcical circumstances.

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) rules dictated that players were only eligible if they were able to attend the award ceremony - in Kuala Lumpur on a Wednesday night in November.

Consequently, every major European-based player was taken out of the running, including Korean Park Ji-Sung, Japan's Shunsuke Nakamura and 2004 winner Ali Karimi of Iran.

The resultant controversy overshadowed the award as a sheepish Al-Montashari became the third Saudi to receive the gong after Saeed Owairan in 1994 and Nawaf Al-Temyat in 2000. Nevertheless, he is a fine player with a track record of success at Al-Ittihad, and at just 24 he will be the rock at the heart of the Saudi defence for another decade.

Striker Yasser Al-Qahtani also plays a big part. Another relative youngster at 23, he inspired the 2-0 home win against South Korea and has recently secured a move to Al-Hilal, one of the country's biggest clubs.

No Saudi player scored more than three times in qualifying and this lack of a dominant striker could be a real problem in Germany. With Al-Jaber's best goalscoring days behind him, it will fall to Al-Qahtani to convert any half-chances that fall to him if his team are to make progress.

Although the majority of pundits have dismissed the Saudis, they may still fancy their chances of causing a surprise or two.

They have beaten the Koreans home and away, and looked every bit as good as their higher-profile Asian colleagues. The hiding by Germany four years ago seems to have obscured the fact that they have a very decent team.

After all, only they and Korea can boast four consecutive finals appearances, not an easy feat in an increasingly competitive Asian confederation.

A berth in the knockout rounds might be beyond them, but with a comparatively straightforward schedule against Tunisia, Ukraine and Spain they should not be written off.