The Green Falcons returned to the World Cup for the first time since 2006, but opened their campaign with a humiliating 5-0 defeat against hosts Russia. Saudi Arabia were left with a mountain to climb thereafter, but managed to restore some pride, slipping to a narrow defeat to eventual quarterfinalists Uruguay and then recording a first World Cup win in 24 years, a 2-1 win against Egypt.
“The Saudi team had a difficult start playing the opening match against the host, but they improved in the second game and won the final match to regain some pride,” said Andy Roxburgh, the technical director for the Asian Football Confederation.
“The change of coach before the final tournament — it is difficult to prepare a team for the World Cup in a short space of time — and players in Spain who didn’t play regularly, wasn’t helpful.”
The third-place finish was still a marked improvement from Saudi Arabia’s 2006 World Cup run when they finished bottom of Group H with a solitary point from a 1-1 draw with Tunisia.
Juan Antonio Pizzi’s contract was extended after the win over Egypt and the Argentinian will lead his team out at the Asian Cup next year, where Saudi Arabia have been paired with North Korea, Lebanon and Qatar. Saudi Arabia last won the continental title in 1996 on home soil and they will be among the favorites for the tournament in the UAE. Roxburgh believes that Saudi Arabia’s future is bright.
“The Saudis have good technique and some fast players, and they have potential,” he said. “In the long term, they need to encourage some players to play abroad, develop their league, establish youth structures and academies, and raise the level of coach education.”
Saudi Arabia and Tunisia were the only two Arab teams to register wins while Morocco drew 2-2 with Spain in their final group match, but the region’s challenge was disappointing. Even before the final round of group matches all four teams had been eliminated. Tunisia coach Nabil Maaloul acknowledged that Arab teams were playing catch-up with the rest of the world.
Brazil’s 1994 World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, who heads FIFA’s technical study group in Russia, shares Maaloul’s concerns. Parreira led Saudi Arabia at the 1998 World Cup, but was sacked after two defeats against hosts France and Denmark and replaced by assistant coach Mohamed Al-Khuraishi, who oversaw the team’s final group match, a 2-2 draw with South Africa.
“I felt that the expectation is always very high for the teams at the World Cup that are coming to the World Cup,” said Parreira at a news conference, evaluating the Arab teams’ performance in Russia.
“We tell them that just qualifying for this competition is a big achievement. You must come here with the willingness to do the best. If you compare the infrastructure of the Middle East with the big countries and the big teams — no structure for youth development, no structure for coach education — then it is going to be very difficult.”
The Brazilian coached Kuwait from 1978 to 1982, leading the Al-Azraq to the World Cup in Spain, where they drew with the former Czechoslovakia and lost to European powerhouses England and France. He also managed the UAE at the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Parreira has managed at six different World Cups, a record.
“When I worked with Kuwait, they were the number one team in Asia in every competition, even above Japan, Korea and Iran. We took them to England and Brazil. We prepared properly.
“The foundation is very important — to have a stronger league, to have the patience to develop players and to expose them to international football. We took Kuwait to England, Brazil, not just one time.
“They look for results very quickly. There is no continuity, one day the coach is Brazilian, the next day it’s a French coach, the other day a Spanish coach, another day a Croatian coach, another day a Dutch coach, another day a Portuguese coach, so they have to concentrate on one school of football. That’s what I did with Kuwait. Arab countries need a better structured league, develop the coaches and the youth players, otherwise when you reach this level, you will always be missing something. Of course, in the end, history and culture count a lot.”