Saudi Arabia made footballing history between 1994 and 2006 in qualifying for four successive editions of FIFA World Cup™. Over that period, the Green Falcons were one of Asia’s top sides, representing the continent with distinction on the global stage. In addition to their World Cup achievements, the Saudis also won the 1996 AFC Asian Cup title and finished runners-up in the 2000 and 2007 editions.
After that sustained period of success, the team’s fortunes changed abruptly, leaving fans not a little perplexed. The lean spell began with their failure to qualify directly for South Africa 2010 after finishing third behind Korea Republic and Korea DPR in their group. There was further disappointment in the subsequent play-off, when they fell to a shock defeat against Bahrain.
In the following years, performance levels plummeted further as the Kingdom’s side crashed out of the 2011 Asian Cup in the first round and failed to even feature in the final round of AFC qualifying for Brazil 2014. Indeed, Saudi Arabia managed just a solitary win in Group D, finishing third behind Australia and Oman. Then, to add insult to injury, the team were eliminated in the first round of the 2015 Asian Cup.
This decline in fortunes prompted frequent changes to the technical staff, with seven different coaches all failing to arrest the slide. That was until the Saudi Football Association managed to attract one of four coaches to have qualified for the previous two editions of the World Cup. For Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, who took up the reins on 26 August 2015, there was to be no gentle introduction, with the second round of qualifiers for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ having just kicked off.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) September 5, 2017
The Green Falcon had just recorded their first victory of the qualifiers – a last-gasp 3-2 win over Palestine. With the domestic season already underway, Van Marwijk and his assistants immediately set about studying their players, relying on their own assessments and experience. The team hit the ground running, with the Dutchman overseeing an emphatic 7-0 victory against Timor-Leste in his first match in charge.
A former player during the era of Dutch Total Football, Van Marwijk continued in the same vein, with wins over Malaysia and a strong United Arab Emirates side giving his charges the confidence that they could again compete with the best. In their seven Round 2 qualifying games, which ended in March 216, the Saudis recorded six wins and two draws to top Group B with 20 points, scoring 28 goals and conceding just four in the process.
How did Van Marwijk turn around the team’s fortunes in just seven months?
- He developed and stuck with a 4-3-3 formation.
- He established the elements he considered fundamental to a sustainable playing system.
- He made changes of his own and give players the opportunity to engage with his plans.
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) September 6, 2017
The road to Russia
After Saudi Arabia had qualified for the decisive third qualifying round, it was only natural for the country’s FA to renew the coach’s contract. He was seen as the right man at this important juncture, with a ticket to Russia 2018 now the overriding objective for the Dutchman and his squad.
A busy domestic season limited the team to three friendlies and a number of short-duration training camps, where Van Marwijk assessed potential new squad members. The Russia 2018 qualifiers soon resumed, and the Green Falcons started the campaign in September 2016 with a testing 1-0 win over Thailand and an even harder-fought 2-1 victory over Iraq a few days later. True, both wins were secured from the penalty spot, but the six-point haul gave the squad a surge of self-belief.
Confidence grew with each game and was further underpinned by a creditable 2-2 draw against Australia and a 3-0 victory over UAE that marked the Saudis as genuine qualification contenders. Despite their first defeat of the round, a 2-1 reverse in Japan, subsequent wins over Thailand (3-0) and Iraq (1-0) left them on the brink of qualification. A tough 3-2 defeat in Australia and a surprise 2-1 reverse in the UAE in their penultimate game had nerves on edge ahead of their crucial showdown with Japan. Putting their faith in the football that had got them that far, they dug deep for a 1-0 victory against the Samurai Blue to return to the global stage after a long hiatus.
The keys to success in Round 3
- Effective forward play: The team scored 17 goals, making it the joint most potent attack in both groups (with Japan).
- Making home advantage count: Saudi Arabia recorded four wins and one draw in their five home fixtures.
- Second-half stamina: After getting the measure of their opponents in the first half, the Green Falcons netted 12 of their 17 goals in the second period of their games. 16 out of their 19 points came after they had finished the first half level or behind.
— المنتخب السعودي (@SaudiNT) September 5, 2017