Saudi Arabians suffer stage fright
Twelve years on and some things remain the same for Saudi Arabia. The Sons of the Desert returned for their fourth straight appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals, and Sami Al Jaber weighed in once more with a goal.
Yet among the many highs and lows of the country's FIFA World Cup adventures over the last 12 years, two things in particular stand out: their march to the second round on their debut appearance at USA 94, and the merciless 8-0 drubbing they received at the hands of Germany four years ago in Korea/Japan.
This summer's tournament saw Marcos Paqueta's men fall somewhere between the two extremes, with their performances failing to leave a lasting impression on most football fans. Fans back home in the royal kingdom were left longing for more after the ten-day roller-coaster ride that was their Germany 2006 campaign ended all too soon. Ahead of the tournament, expectations for Saudi Arabia were modest, especially after consecutive defeats in their warm-up games against Belgium, Czech Republic and Turkey.
Yet after being pegged back to 2-2 in the dying minutes of their exciting opening match against Tunisia , Saudi Arabia succeeded in raising a few eyebrows. Yasser Al Kahtani's marvellous strike seemed to herald a return to the kind of form shown by the Saudis at USA 94. However, that performance was to prove no more than a mirage.
In their second game, a bruising 4-0 defeat by a stylish and powerful Ukrainian team , Marcos Paqueta's side appeared to throw in the towel well before the end. Then came the match against Spain and a sobering lesson in controlled passing football by Luis Aragones's second-string side.
Although Paqueta's charges managed to get a point on the scoreboard at Germany 2006 and to score two goals - a marginal improvement on 2002, when they failed to find the net and conceded 12 - the team's failings were nevertheless laid bare.
A notable problem was their lack of experience. Paqueta may have a reputation for nurturing young players but, in his own words, the Saudis had "come up short in terms of international experience" at the finals. Not a single member of his squad plays his club football in Europe and while they may be a big fish in the Asian pond, Paqueta admitted his players' confidence was affected by exposure to the world stage. Anyone who saw their timid efforts after falling a goal behind against Ukraine would have seen that for themselves.
Indeed the Saudis' record against European opposition makes sobering reading: they failed to win any of their eight friendlies against sides from the old continent prior to the finals and the loss to Ukraine was their sixth in seven FIFA World Cup matches against teams from Europe.
If inexperience was one problem, other events did not help their preparations. The night before the opening match against Tunisia, Mohammed Al Anbar picked up an ankle injury and was forced to withdraw, leaving the Saudis with one less attacking option up front. Then, before the second game against Ukraine, Mohammad Al Shlhoub's mother died suddenly and the Saudi number ten was forced to return home.
Out with the old, in with the new
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia still have something to be positive about. Ageing veterans Sami Al Jaber and Mohammed Al Deayea helped out one last time before deciding to hang up their boots. And as two illustrious careers come to an end, it could be time for rising young stars like Yasser Al Kahtani, Mabouk Zaid and Hamad Al Monstashari to come to the fore.
All got a taste of FIFA World Cup action and will be hungry to return. Saudi Arabia can look to other youngsters as well, including 22-year-old Saad Al Harthi, who played 90 minutes against Spain, and Al Anbar, who was unfortunate to withdraw early due to injury. These players are likely to take centre stage in the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010.
And with Paqueta giving run-outs to 18 of his 23-man squad, the hope is they will be stronger for their experiences in Germany. "Playing in the World Cup has been a great experience for Saudi Arabia," said Paqueta. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the younger players to face strong teams and pick up valuable experience."
The final piece in the jigsaw concerns the future of coach Paqueta. Although an official announcement has yet to be made, the Brazilian coach looks set to stay on with the team. In fact, early on in the tournament, Saudi Arabian Football Association vice-president Prince Faisal expressed his wish to see Paqueta see out the remaining two years of his contract irrespective of the team's fortunes in Germany.
Barring a change of mind, Paqueta should therefore be in charge of preparations for the upcoming Gulf Cup and the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.