For football fans in Saudi Arabia, Tuesday 5 September 2017 will forever be remembered as the day that their country booked its return to the FIFA World Cup™.
The Green Falcons appeared at four consecutive editions of the World Cup between 1994 and 2006, before failing to qualify for the last two editions. Following a decade of disappointment, the Saudi Arabian federation appointed Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, who had led his own country to the final of South Africa 2010. The coach has repaid their faith by securing qualification for next year’s tournament in Russia.
FIFA.com looks back at the story of Saudi Arabia’s qualifying campaign, which ended with the country securing its fifth appearance at the World Cup finals.
— #WCQ (@FIFAWorldCup) September 5, 2017
How they qualified
The Green Falcons entered the preliminary competition in the second round. With six wins and two draws, they finished top of their group on 20 points, having scored 28 goals and conceded only four times. They advanced to the third phase comfortably, and in the best possible shape for the challenges that lay ahead.
Determined to get the next phase off to the best possible start, the Saudis claimed narrow victories over Thailand (1-0) and Iraq (2-1), with all three of their goals coming from the penalty spot. Thanks to those two morale-boosting results, the team could look ahead with confidence to the sterner tests that lay in their path. After a draw with Australia, they took another step towards qualification with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over the United Arab Emirates in Jeddah.
Defeat inevitably followed, at the hands of Japan, but was swiftly forgotten in the wake of two crucial wins over Thailand (3-0) and Iraq (1-0). However, the pressure was right back on the Saudis following two straight defeats away to Australia (2-3) and, unexpectedly, the UAE (1-2). Fortunately, the result of the match between Australia and Thailand went in their favour, a 2-1 victory for the Socceroos leaving the Kingdom within touching distance of second place. All they needed to do was overcome Japan, who had already secured qualification. The Saudis did enough to get over the line, claiming victory on the night by a single goal.
Stability was Van Marwijk’s mantra throughout the preliminary competition. The Dutch coach put his faith in a settled group of players, and made only minor alterations to his team selection when circumstances dictated.
Taisir Al-Jassim and Yahya Al-Shehri played in each of the team’s 17 qualifying matches, while Salman Al-Faraj, Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri and Osama Hawsawi missed only a single match each. Nawaf Al-Abed, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and Omar Hawsawi were not far behind, making 13 appearances each. Last but not least, super-sub Fahad Al-Muwallad came off the bench 11 times, despite missing four of the return matches due to injury.
Van Marwijk called on a total of 35 players over the course of the campaign, 18 of whom took part in at least 7 matches. It is a strategy that ensured the Saudis remained in excellent shape, both physically and technically, right throughout the competition.
12 – The number of matches won by Saudi Arabia in 18 qualifying fixtures (including the default victory over Malaysia). The Green Falcons claimed six wins in both the second and third phases of the preliminary competition and were beaten on only three occasions, away to Japan, Australia and the UAE.
“We won against Japan because we were patient. We weren’t at the required level in the first half and I brought on Fahad Al-Muwallad to up the tempo. We managed to grab a goal and secure our most important win. I’m really happy with what we’ve achieved.”
Saudi Arabia coach Bert van Marwijk
Record & ambitions
Having already seen their neighbours from Kuwait, Iraq and the UAE qualify for previous editions, the Saudis had their first chance to demonstrate their potential in 1994. In USA, the team surprised many by qualifying for the Round of 16. The Green Falcons then featured in three consecutive editions at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002 and Germany 2006, before missing out on South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. After an absence of 12 years, the country will therefore be making a long-awaited return at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.