Saudi Arabia’s Coach Is Hunky But Its Team Is Junky
1:13 PM EDT on November 3, 2022
It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.
For a country that so regularly appears in the World Cup, Saudi Arabia's presence in the global soccer scene is almost nonexistent. The reasons for this are fairly obvious.
For one, Saudi Arabia is very often the crappiest team in the entire tournament. The Green Falcons have qualified for six of the last eight World Cups, have made it out of the group stage only once, and have returned home winless after three separate tournaments. Saudi Arabia was the worst team in the field going into the last World Cup in 2018, and it has repeated the feat coming into this one. The only team going to Qatar with a lower FIFA ranking than the Saudis is Qatar itself, which is a little misleading since Qatar's matches count for less in FIFA's algorithm because of their automatic qualification as hosts.
The other big reason for Saudi Arabia's soccer anonymity is that its players tend not to leave the country. The Saudi domestic league, being a Saudi Arabian enterprise, naturally has a lot of money in it, and it often employs a handful of big European-league washouts. (Fun fact: David Ospina, of David Ospina/James Rodríguez Mode fame, currently plays for Al-Nassr.) All that money also means the league has the means to keep its native sons at home. Every single one of the Saudis on the national team's roster come World Cup time will ply their trade for clubs in the Saudi Pro League. Not only that, after clicking around a lot on Wikipedia, I could not find a single Saudi player, current or former, who spent any significant time in their career at a non-Saudi club.
The upshot of all that is this: You will almost certainly not recognize any Saudi player at this World Cup, even though you likely will have seen a few of them just four years ago. In a group alongside three superior national teams—Argentina, Mexico, and Poland, all of which will expect to make it out of the group, and will even hope to make at least some noise in the knockout stage—Saudi Arabia will be favored to lose in every match. If a Saudi player does happen to catch your eye, it will be devilishly difficult for you to follow his club career should you wish to. My advice, then, is to invest as little of your time and attention in this team as you possibly can ... starting right after you finish reading the rest of this post.
Who Is Their Main Guy?
Yasser Al-Shahrani is Saudi Arabia's best and most decorated defender. Fahad Al-Muwallad is Saudi Arabia's best and most decorated attacker. The most acclaimed and battle-tested figure in the Saudi national team isn't any of its players, but is instead Hervé Renard, the coach.
Renard is known for being one of the best managers in Africa. Though a Frenchman by nationality, almost all of Renard's success as a coach has come when he's managed African national teams. He took an unheralded Zambia team and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in its history. He took a loaded but underperforming Ivory Coast team and won the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 23 years. Those feats made him the first manager to ever win the AFCON with two different countries. He took a talented Morocco team and helped them qualify for their first World Cup in 20 years. At that tournament, Morocco played a competitive, attractive style that deserved much more than the single point the team earned in the group stage. Renard has now taken his act a little further east with Saudi Arabia, and the atmosphere of the new confederation doesn't seem to have hampered his abilities any.
A team like Saudi Arabia exists in a weird zone—not all that dissimilar from the one the USMNT occupies. For most of the Green Falcons' matches, they are the juggernaut. The bulk of the Asian Confederation's members are tiny teams that cannot compete with with Saudi Arabia's talent. In those games, the task for the Saudis is to club the snot out of their inferiors as quickly and comprehensively as possible. But the Asian Confederation isn't all minnows, and its biggest and best teams—Japan, South Korea, Australia—are usually much better than Saudi Arabia. In those games, the Saudis' task is to hunker down and try to keep their own snot in their faces.
The mark of Renard's good work since taking the Saudi job in 2019 is that he has prepared his team to play well in both scenarios. The Green Falcons beat up on the Asian teams they should've beaten and nabbed enough points against their peers or betters to qualify for the World Cup. In the team's performances in the inter-confederation friendlies have been solid, too. In its seven friendlies this year, Saudi Arabia has only lost two of them. Of course, they've only one won, but remember, this team is not good. Scoreless draws against teams like Ecuador and the U.S. (*grumble grumble*) are plenty respectable.
To that end, Saudi Arabia has only conceded more than a single goal in a match three times over the past three years. It's impressive how Renard has kept a team with so little defensive talent so stingy, and maintaining that miserliness in Qatar will be the countries only real hope of not getting thrashed.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Renard is a total hunk, which is especially evident when he's seen sweating through his trademark untucked, tastefully but suggestively unbuttoned white dress shirt.
Who Is Their Main Non-Scoring Guy?
Saudi Arabia will be defending for the vast majority of all three of its group stage games. If the team does it well, it will require a good showing from Yasser Al-Shahrani. Al-Shahrani should be up for it.
Al-Shahrani can play all over the defense—center back, left back, right back, he does it all. Like any good defender, he has good positional sense, is aggressive in challenges, is strong in the tackle, and good in the air. What probably stands out most from his game is his skill with the ball. He's not extremely fast but he's an elusive dribbler, even in tight spaces, and he reads passing options and lanes well. Those on-the-ball skills probably won't serve him quite as well at the World Cup as they do at club level, where his Al-Hilal team usually dominates its domestic and continental opposition. Here's an impressive highlight compilation of Al-Shahrani's Al-Hilal taking on Mexican club Monterrey in the Club World Cup a couple years ago:
Where's The Beef?
Which teams or players does Saudi Arabia not like? Do the Saudi players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.
To the extent that the 2022 World Cup matters to Saudi Arabia, outside the importance its players' place in it and the excitement and pride its fans will feel when watching, it is as a marker of Saudi Arabia's growing rivalry with Qatar. It's a rivalry Saudi Arabia is in some ways losing.
The mere existence of a World Cup in Qatar has to sting the Saudi government's ego. For so long, Saudi Arabia has been the overwhelmingly dominant player on the Arabian Peninsula. Though neighbors like Qatar and the various Emirates have long been rich and ambitious in their own right, none were bigger, richer, or, crucially, more influential on the world stage than the Saudis. On the peninsula, what the Saudis say tends to go.
That, however, is beginning to change. Over the decades, Qatar especially has sought to expand its own sphere of influence. By doing so, the country began to creep out from Saudi Arabia's shadow and pursue its own interests, even to the detriment of the Saudis. Because Qatar can't really compete with Saudi's money and power, it has looked for other, more subtle ways to increase its importance and influence on world events.
You are probably already aware of what much of this effort has looked like, because much of it has involved the media and sports worlds. There's Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned news network that was founded in the mid-'90s and quickly gained international fame as arguably the dominant news in the region. Al Jazeera's willingness to criticize the actions of regional players like Saudi Arabia has long made it a stone in Saudi's shoe. Then there's BeIn Sports, the sports broadcast network that is now a major TV rights power player around the world. In an effort to thwart this significant soft-power source, Saudi Arabia banned the network from the country in 2017, amidst larger political tensions with Qatar. Not long after, a Saudi-based pirate network called beoutQ started broadcasting BeIn's entire feed for free online, enraging BeIn and Qatar. Then there's of course Qatar's purchase of the World Cup, and its purchase and extravagant funding of Paris Saint-Germain, both of which have exponentially grown Qatar's stature worldwide.
If Saudi Arabia wasn't too concerned early on by Qatar's growing soft power portfolio, and the Saudi-shunning foreign policy decisions that increasingly accompanied that growing international soft power, then it certainly is now. The big Arabian Peninsula diplomatic crisis of 2017, in which Saudi Arabia and many of its peninsula neighbors blockaded Qatar's ports as political punishment, might have, according to the Saudi side, ostensibly been about Qatar supporting terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. But everyone knows Saudi Arabia is no one to lecture anyone else about supporting terrorists. No, what the crises had to really be about was Saudi Arabia trying at last to bring its budding rival to heel.
The tensions from that crisis have begun to thaw over the past year or so. But the fact remains that Qatar is now a serious player on the peninsula and beyond. Saudi Arabia has attempted to catch up with Qatar's soft power moves, by starting the Al Jazeera rival network, Al Arabiya, and trying to undermine BeIN with beoutQ, and, most recently, purchasing Newcastle United and attempting to do for it what Qatar has done for PSG. But as of yet, none of those efforts have succeeded to the extent that the Qataris' earlier efforts have.
Nowhere will this be more immediately evident than at the World Cup—Qatar's World Cup. There is no chance Qatar and Saudi Arabia actually meet on the field at the tournament, since both are huge underdogs to even make it out of their groups. But Saudi Arabia will be present at Qatar's soft power crown jewel, and that fact alone will stoke the greater international rivalry, the next phase of which the world will certainly see the effects.
Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode
Who is Saudi Arabia's best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia's James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia's David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?
Friends, let's be honest with each other here: The answer is nobody.
Fun Geographical Fact
I'm sure you've seen the movies and cartoons that feature some lonely protagonist stumbling through a world of sand, sand as far as the eye can see, striated strips of sand, smooth lakes of sand, undulating hills of sand, sand spanning the entire horizon in every direction. Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter is where that vista lives in real life.
The Empty Quarter is the world's largest expanse of continuous sand. The desert is about the size of Texas. I personally would not be interested in visiting, but it does look cool in photos and videos.
Good Flag Or Bad Flag?
The sword is cool and unique, and the Arabic lettering is beautiful, but there's way too much of that boring shade of green. Bad flag.
Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?
Notable Moment In World Cup History
I doubt it ever got better for Saudi Arabia than in the first half of its first ever World Cup match. The year was 1994, and the Saudis geared up to have their World Cup introduction carried out by the experienced hands of a typically great Netherlands team. Anyone—and in this case, everyone—expecting an easy Oranje blowout would've been shocked when the Green Falcons took the lead just 18 minutes in. Proving the opening goal was no fluke, the Saudis had all the best chances for the entire first half, and the Dutch were probably fortunate not to be down a couple goals going into halftime.
Not long after the break, the Netherlands tied the game up from a Wim Jonk strike in the 50th minute. But if anyone thought order had been restored and the Dutch would go on to win in a romp, they would've again been surprised. The Saudis held on manfully to their share of the spoils against what had become a Dutch onslaught. The player who deserved most credit for keeping the scoreline level was 21-year-old keeper Mohamed Al-Deayea. Sadly, just minutes before the final whistle that would've signaled Saudi Arabia's hard-fought point in its first tournament match, memorably earned opposite one of the titans of the sport, Al-Deayea made his first error of the match, inexplicably coming far out of his goal to punch away a cross, only for his punch to miss, the ball to fall to Gaston Taument, and Taument to head the ball over the unkept goalline. Taument's expression said it all: not a fleck of joy, just pure relief, having saved the Netherlands from wholly unexpected disaster.
Luckily for the Saudis, the performance itself was a sign of things to come. The Green Falcons beat Morocco and Belgium in the following two group games, which saw them qualify for the knockout round. There, they fell to Sweden, 3–1, but the loss couldn't put a damper on what had been a fantastic first World Cup. Saudi Arabia qualified for each of the next three World Cups, led primarily by Al-Deayea, who recovered from his awful mistake in 1994 and became one of the two greatest soccer players in Saudi history. And to think, all that good started with a loss.
How Can They Win The World Cup?
Mohammed bin Salman, I have some questions that I will now address to you directly. Are you serious about this soccer soft power shit, or are you just going to let Qatar run laps around you? Who's the biggest big man in this region anyway, you or Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani? Whose money is longer? Whose morals are faker? Whose drive to whitewash their socio-political sins in the red of blood, the green of money, and the black-and-white checkered pattern of the soccer ball is stronger?
If you really want to show the Qataris who's boss here, you need to one-up them. And you need to do it in their own game, at their own games. Everyone knows Qatar bought the right to host the World Cup. Purchasing the hosting rights was impressive in its shamelessness, and building the tournament's infrastructure was terrifying in its lack of respect for human life, exhibited by the slavery and death required to raise those stadiums and hotels and the rest.
It's a tough act to follow, for sure. But you, MbS, have the ability—the obligation, even—to do Qatar one better: You must buy the 2022 World Cup title itself.
Oh, is that too much money for you, paying opposing players to throw matches, buying refs' loyalties so they rig the games, bribing international commentator teams so that they convince their audiences that what they're seeing is legitimate? Are you too weak and afraid to disappear a few dozen FIFA officials who prove too stubborn to further pervert the world's most popular sport? Do you lack the organizational acumen to pull off such a daring, difficult, and downright evil scheme?
Only a big-time loser of an immoral despot would pass up this golden opportunity to do what no country has ever done before. The cost will be great, both financially and ethically. But Saudi Arabia's money is as vast and innumerable as the grains of sand in the Empty Quarter, and your soul has to be thoroughly blackened and dead already, so any spiritual tax probably doesn't matter anymore either. The point being: Do it, MbS. Buy the World Cup. It is Saudi Arabia's only chance. I believe in you.