Saudi Arabian football was very much in the doldrums a little over three years ago, with the national side dropping to 126th place in the December 2012 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their lowest position in over 20 years. Having seen their side miss out on FIFA World Cup™ qualification twice in a row, in the preliminaries for South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, fans were unable to contain their disappointment at the side’s failure to excel on the international stage, while the country’s footballing chiefs were only too aware that something needed to be done.
They were spurred into action by the national team’s group-phase elimination at last year’s AFC Asian Cup in Australia, a setback that prompted them to install Bert van Marwijk as coach. The Dutchman had steered his country to the Final at South Africa 2010, where Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal denied them at the last. In taking over last August, the 63-year-old’s first task was to ensure an improved performance in the Asian qualifiers for Russia 2018, with the ultimate aim being Saudi Arabia’s return to the world finals and the global elite.
Speaking at his first press conference as Green Falcons coach, Van Marwijk said: “The task I have is not a simple one. I am going to concentrate on qualification for the World Cup. I am not worried about in the downturn in the fortunes of Saudi football, but I am determined to ensure that the players make progress and start winning games.”
The former Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg coach signed off by saying: “I am not satisfied with our ranking. Ninety-fifth place does not do justice to the history of the Saudi national team.”
On the up
The Dutchman was as good as his word and quickly inspired a turnaround, with his side winning their first four games in Group A of the Russia 2018 preliminaries, in which United Arab Emirates, Palestine, Timor-Leste and Malaysia provided the opposition. Held to a draw last November by the Palestinians, the Saudis returned to winning ways with a thumping 10-0 defeat of Timor-Leste.
That remarkable run of results has boosted Saudi Arabia’s Ranking position, with Van Marwijk’s men accruing more than 40 points in January to make the biggest rise of any team that month. Their upward trajectory continued in February. Adding an additional 97 points to their Ranking tally, the Saudis jumped 20 places to 55th position, their highest since 2009, when they climbed to two places higher.
Delighted to see such a spectacular improvement, Ahmed Eid, the president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, said: “It’s all down to hard work and a solid overall plan. The progress made by the national team in the last couple of years is just the start. They’re on the right track and Saudi football is back in the spotlight.”
The Green Falcons will have an opportunity to continue their FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking climb when they take on Malaysia and UAE next month in their final two Group A matches. Victories in those two games will secure them top spot in the group, and with it a place in the final qualification round.
Reflecting on the significant progress his charges have made in recent months, Van Marwijk said: “We analyse all our opponents and we prepare very carefully for each match. The team has stepped up a level in terms of skill, which is pushing it on to work even harder.”