Saudi Arabia shows why it can fly the Gulf flag at 2018 World Cup

An appearance by a Gulf side at the biggest international competition in the sport is long overdue

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

It was an opportunity for Saudi Arabia to truly underline how they have become a force in Asian football in this World Cup qualification cycle. Sitting at the top of Group B, Bert van Marwijk’s side could have taken a giant step towards Russia with a positive result against Japan on Tuesday. As it turned out, defeat in Saitama inadvertently showcased the progress they have made.

Despite losing 2-1, with goals from Hiroshi Kiyotake and Genki Haraguchi keeping Japan’s hopes of reaching the World Cup intact, Saudi Arabia still find themselves at the top of their qualification group. Australia could have leapfrogged them but could only manage a 2-2 draw against Thailand in Bangkok, meaning van Marwijk’s side are still in an excellent position midway through the campaign.

If they can maintain their current formula, in which they have proven themselves as tough to beat at home and stubborn on the road as well, Saudi Arabia stand a strong chance of making it to their first World Cup since 2006. Tuesday’s highlighted their true strength of position; that they could suffer defeat to a side targeting top spot themselves and yet still hold on to first place in the group.

Five games down, five to go. This campaign is proving to be something of a watershed for Saudi Arabia given their recent struggles to make it to the World Cup. They made it to four consecutive tournaments between 1994 and 2006, even reaching the round of 16 in 1994, but clambering on to the world stage has never seemed more daunting for not just the Saudis, but Gulf national teams in general.

Consider how UAE’s supposed golden generation revived their chances of World Cup qualification on Tuesday with a crucial 2-0 win over Iraq, yet still only occupy fourth place in the group. Making it to the greatest competition in international football is difficult. Of course, that’s the way it should be, but with the raising of the bar in Asia the environment has grown even harsher.

There is a lot riding on Saudi Arabia making it to the 2018 World Cup. Van Marwijk was appointed own the basis of his international football pedigree, taking Netherlands to the final of the tournament in 2010. The Dutchman is on a big salary as national team boss and thus far has delivered. He must continue to do so.

There is a wider significance to the success or failure of Saudi Arabia, though. Never before has the spotlight on international football in the Gulf shone so bright with Qatar hosting the World Cup in 2022. All eyes were on them to deliver some sort of statement on the strength of the sport in the region, with some tipping them to make a charge for the 2018 tournament. With just four points from five games, slumped second bottom of their qualification group, that now seems unlikely.

And so it has fallen on Saudi Arabia (and possibly UAE) to deliver a statement on the current state of Gulf football. While Saudi fans care little about the region as a whole, just as England supporters don’t go into a qualifier concerned with the reputation of European football, there is an interesting contrast to be made between the success of van Marwijk’s side and the still fledgling prospects of the Qatari national team.

It could be that Saudi Arabia fly the flag for the Gulf at the 2018 World Cup. By that time 12 years will have passed since the region has boasted a team at the tournament. An appearance by a Gulf side at the biggest international competition in the sport is long overdue. Gulf football has been woefully underrepresented over the past decade or so, despite Saudi Arabia’s current position in qualifying.

Whether Gulf football likes it or not, the region is now being viewed collectively in the run up to the 2022 World Cup. There are many who wish to discredit football in the area as a way of underlining how, in their view, international football’s greatest tournament should never have been handed to a part of the world without much of a historical background in the sport.

That is of course a viewpoint of sheer ignorance, but nonetheless emblematic significance now weighs heavily on the shoulders of those involved in Gulf football. Saudi Arabia are currently carrying that.