Saudi Arabia enter the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010 seeking to prolong a love affair with the FIFA World Cup™ that began back in 1994, when they surprised even their own supporters by reaching the second round as tournament debutants, only to be knocked out by Sweden.
In doing this the Saudis contributed a grand upset, scoring one of the greatest goals in the history of the finals in the process when Saeed Owairan dribbled past a number of Belgian opponents from the middle of the park before firing home.
The Sons of the Desert continued to dominate the continental qualifying stage as they went on to reach the next three editions of FIFA World Cup finals. Despite the qualifying successes, however, they failed to progress beyond the group phase on each occasion.
One evident reason behind Saudi Arabia's disappointment was their vulnerability when playing against European opponents. One of Asia's technically strongest sides, Saudi Arabia have somehow developed an inferiority complex against the physically superior European teams. In all previous eight FIFA World Cup meetings with European teams, they have won just once and lost seven times, conceding 24 goals while scoring only 2 along the way.
Saudi Arabia may have impressed in the qualifying campaign for the previous FIFA World Cup, topping a group featuring Korea Republic, Uzbekistan and Kuwait, but a lack of competitive internationals in their preparatory process saw them struggle again in the group stage at Germany 2006, where they claimed a point from a meeting with Tunisia but lost to Ukraine and Spain.
That appearance was the last action for the remainder of the golden generation, headlined by the legendary goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayear and the prolific Sami Al Jaber, who made way for the country's emerging stars. A host of these youngsters have already come of age, with Yasser Al Qahtani already making the skipper's armband his own.
The Saudis did not lose any of their appreciation of Brazilian coaching methods when Marcus Paqueta moved on, replacing him with his countryman Helio dos Anjos, who took over in March. The new coach did a good job overseeing the changing of the guard when his side swept aside the likes of Uzbekistan and defending champions Japan to storm into their sixth AFC Asian Cup final in July, where they only lost to Iraq by a solitary goal.
Captain Al Qahtani, who finished the joint top-scorer alongside Iraqi Younis Mahmoud, spearheads the attacking line alongside Malek Marz, who scored a brace in their 3-2 semi-final victory over Japan at the Asian Cup 2007. Abdulrahman Al Qahtani remains their cog in the midfield, while at the back former AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari and Hussain Sulaimani form one of Asia's tightest defensive partnerships.
Boasting one of the finest arrays of talent in Asia, the Desert Sons once again showed how unpredictable they could be in the qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010. After opening up with a 2-0 win over Singapore, they surprisingly suffered a 3-0 reverse at the hands of a rampant Uzbekistan. The defeat, their worst against the Central Asians over the past decade, prompted an immediate managerial change, with Nasser Al Johar stepping in for Helio dos Anjos. Al Johar, who had overseen the team's campaign in Korea/Japan 2002, didn't disappoint his pay-masters as his team bounced back with four consecutive wins, including a 4-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan, to progress to the next round as group winners.
In his fourth stint at the helm of the national team, the 65-year-old Al Johar, lasted just eight months before being sacked following the team's disappointing 1-0 defeat against Korea DPR midway through the final stage of qualifying. With just four points from the opening four games, defeat in Pyongyang saw the Saudis languishing in fourth place, with their qualifying hopes hanging by a thread.
Succeeding Al Johar was Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro, who was faced with the tough task of pulling the team's qualifying campaign back on track.