Saudi Arabia can do well in the World Cup


Saudi Arabia against Russia in the opening game of next year’s World Cup offers up a tantalizing clash but for the Kingdom it is a double-edged sword. It is a big honor to kick off the world’s most watched sporting event by playing in its first game. Lost in the one-month, 64-game schedule have been many matches hardly remembered or worth mentioning. But match No 1is etched in memory.

The downside is that the Kingdom in the June 14 inaugural will be playing the hosts on their home territory, in front of what is sure to be a packed Luzhniki Stadium of 81,000 spectators and a TV global audience in the billions. In that massive, daunting atmosphere, the Saudi players will have to have nerves of steel to be able to deal with the occasion and soak up all this tremendous pressure.

On paper, Saudi Arabia should be able to beat Russia which, strangely enough, is the weakest team among the 32 countries in the World Cup, ranked 65 in the world. At 63, Saudi Arabia has a slight mathematical edge. It should manage to at least tie the game, even if Russia enjoys the home field advantage.

To the doubters, let it not be forgotten that Cameroon staged one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history when it downed Argentina, led by the legendary Diego Maradona, in the opener of the 1990 World Cup when Argentina were the defending champions. Or Senegal, when it defeated France, once again the then current champions, in the first game of the 2002 World Cup. These are examples of world champion teams who were tripped up by two African upstarts who were treated as an afterthought before those World Cups even began. Russia, on the other hand, is no superpower in football, having never come close to winning a World Cup.

Friday’s World Cup draw in Moscow also placed Uruguay and Egypt along with Saudi Arabia in Group A. In Uruguay, the Kingdom will have a real challenge on its hands. Uruguay will probably finish first, leaving the remaining three to battle it out for second place and a trip to the second round. Uruguay is a two-time winner of the World Cup and even though those titles were won when the World Cup was first born, it remains, along with Brazil and Argentina, the perennial top three soccer nations in South America.

Which leaves Egypt. Off the field, Saudi Arabia and Egypt share a long history of strong bilateral relations. At this particular time, the two nations are bonded more than ever by their determined mission to wipe out Islamist terrorism. On the field, the hope is that the enduring ties of these two leading Muslim Arab nations will extend to a healthy rivalry in which it will not matter who wins.

The only familiar face for Saudi Arabia in the group is Egypt, having met in six FIFA-sanctioned matches. For the record, although Egypt won four games and drew once, their only defeat to Saudi Arabia was the humiliating 5-1 loss in the group stage of the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup.

So, Saudi Arabia has a decent chance of entering the second round, emulating the giant team of 1994 which spectacularly broke out of the group stage with victories over Morocco and Belgium, helped by the marauding run of Saeed Owairan against the Belgians, selected one of the World Cup’s all-time greatest goals.

The Kingdom can do it again. This will be its fifth World Cup appearance. It has a history and pedigree players. If the 2018 World Cup promises excitement, Saudi Arabia will be squarely in the middle of some of that action.