Amidst the intensely pressurised environment of the concluding stages of World Cup 2018 qualifying navigating the globe currently, a number of intriguing and diverse stories are on the brink of worldwide exposure in the finest, and most lucrative, spectacle known to modern footballing audiences. Ignoring the obvious romanticism of a nation whose external, catastrophically war-battered, image is being redeemed through sporting exploits in Syria, the potential elevation of pragmatic Panama – widely famous only for its canal and money laundering scandal – to an unprecedented stage, Burkina Faso or Uganda’s present unbeaten defiance against Africa’s tarnished establishment, or even the Solomon Islands’ recently extinguished, but previously unfathomable potential exploitation of New Zealand’s depleted and insecure present status in Oceanic play-offs, a distinct act of commercial hostility is unfolding in the heart of the Muslim world. In Asia’s final group stages, we find our protagonists, or antagonists to some, guarding second place – the only remaining automatic position behind Japan – from Australia, the continent’s complex geographical guests, with one do-or-die fixture remaining. Saudi Arabia, four-time qualifiers with consecutive appearances in the USA, France, Japan & South Korea and Germany, yet absentees from the past two global celebrations after being ousted at Asian play-off and third-round stages against Bahrain and Oman respectively, desperately desire a geopolitical representation of national strength at a presently tumultuous period in their history, both as a footballing establishment and divisive bastion of Middle-Eastern authority.
Is the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s ambition and according present achievement entirely derived from wider political manipulation, however, or is there an underlying subtext of responsible domestic management, sustainable and accountable translation to the national team and distant, even non-existent political rhetoric that rarely receives according broadcast from the globe’s media? Reliant on regional socio-economic pre-eminence and social compliance or attributable to the adoption of unfamiliar methods and determined graft of innumerable individuals in testing environments, Saudi Arabian football is regardless on the verge not only of adding to just two previous World Cup finals victories – Stateside in ’94, against Belgium and Morocco –, but, more poignantly, ousting geographically distant and economically eclipsing opponents at a pivotal point in Arabian history.
Founded as a Kingdom in 1932 – emergent from Millenia of defined arrays of civilisations and kingdoms, prior to religious ascendency and Ottoman proprietorship – a united Saudi Arabia has since rapidly progressed in economic scales, with the 1938 discovery of vast petroleum resources prompting a post-war promotion to pivotal, if largely unheralded, roles in global society. The world’s largest oil producers and exporters, an eternal and universal demand for such fundamental resources has propelled their otherwise undiversified economy and dishonourably primitive society to absolute relevance in the tumult of present regional conflicts, the mundanity of inflation especially of Western economies and even the direction of silverware in European football. While they remain an unenviable trading partner and reprehensible military ally for the governments of all highly developed economies, considering their unequivocal culture of ultraconservative Wahhabism as a socially restraining factor preventing civil unrest against the autocratic ruling monarchy, but also ideologically infiltrating of neighbouring cultures and partly culpable for the global rise of suicide bombings, it is indisputable that the Saudis have profited in mutual coordination with the West. That is, of course, providing you disregard the persisting tendency for Islamic supremacist and terrorist groups to form, exploiting tactics first popularised through Wahhabism’s growth with funding from both anti-Communist American and British Cold War politicians and more recent leaders searching aimlessly for an unfeasible route to Middle Eastern reconciliation.
Reference the discussion in our extensive recent article on Neymar’s record-obliterating transfer to Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain if you wonder why any of this could possibly be relevant to a national football side introduced plausibly as showcasing any degree of romanticism. Amid ongoing geopolitical barbs, sanctions and ambassadorial withdrawals between Qatar and almost the opposing entirety of the Arabian Peninsula, neither side appears likely or ideologically able to abandon staunch position, instead relying on gradually unravelling revelations and scandals to besmirch the other. Notoriously proud peoples, public image is arguably more critical than even in American or British politics, and any national successes – be them economic, military, technological or sporting – will be exploited to their greatest extent, with PSG’s failure to prevent the youthful, largely Paris-sourced Monaco squad in Ligue 1 last season a significant tarnishing of Qatari face considering the landed gentry of the French capital are effectively the pawns of the ruling Al-Thani dynasty. Rectifying such an embarrassment with the signatures of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé – on a season-long loan in compliance with Financial Fair Play obligations – and Dani Alves, these expenses, nevertheless, could not have come at a worse time for the Al-Thani’s, as even diplomatic maverick – to put it mildly – Donald Trump belied his position, programmed to sustain coherent relations with all sides supporting US air strikes, in a high-profile meeting to endorse Saudi King Salman’s cause.
Unlike Qatar’s national football team, who, much akin to their national Olympic programme, have promoted the importation and fast-tracked citizenship particularly of West African sporting talent, the present Saudi model retains a distinctly homely, perhaps incestuous and unambitious guise, some may argue. While the list is almost endless of imported Qatari nationals; Senegalese-born Khalifa Ababacar and fellow goalkeeper Amine Lecomte, himself French; Sudanese, Portuguese and Brazilian defenders Musab Kheder, Ró-Ró and Luiz Júnior respectively; French-born defensive midfielder Karim Boudiaf, of Algerian-Moroccan descent; Brazilian journeyman midfielder Rodrigo Tabata; Congolese winger Tresor Kangambu; Algerian winger Boualem Khoukhi and most prominently Uruguayan striker Sebastián Soria, who, upon approach in 2004, had to look the nation up on a map, but has since become the record national appearance maker (123) and goalscorer (40), there is only a single such example in Saudi Arabian ranks; poignantly, captain Osama Hawsawi, from Ras al-Khaimah, an Eastern emirate of the bordering United Arab Emirates. Pivotally, also, the Qatari national team employs no nationals on their sporting staff team, with Spanish manager Felix Sanchez supported by five Uruguayans (two assistant managers, a goalkeeping coach and two fitness coaches), a Dutchman and two Frenchman (all physiotherapists), while only four Qataris – of a total of 42 individuals – have ever managed the side, with the longest, Fahad Thani, lasting 14 months in the role; though, to be fair, Dave Mackay only accumulated a year’s tenure in the mid-1990’s.
These statistics – admittedly only in comparison with the five former homegrown bosses of 47 different historic individuals at the helm of Saudi Arabia, including respective three and five-time employees Mohammed Al-Kharashy and Nasser Al Johar – are not solely attributable to geographical and populational circumstances. As a nation 185.54 times the size of its prospective World Cup-hosting counterpart – 2,149,690km2 to a mere 11,586km2 – and boasting a population inflated 13.51 times – 31,521,418 citizens to Qatar’s 2,334,029 – Saudi Arabia undoubtedly do have a less arduous task scouring schools and youth clubs for potential future senior team representatives, with a far vaster scope for talent. This, however, should not be exploited as a circumstantial excuse by smaller nations such as Qatar, Bahrain – themselves currently featuring three naturalized representatives in Nigerian Jaycee John Okwunwanne, Chadian Abdullah Omar and Moroccan Faouzi Aaish – and the UAE – whose prized asset, Omar Abdulrahman, is a high-profile beneficiary of the effective scholarship programme after his prodigious talent earned his Saudi family of Yemeni descent Emirati citizenship – to reach an internationally competitive standard. Significantly, while Omar was ruled out of squad selection, courtesy of an ankle injury, for the UAE’s most recent qualifier – a 2-1 victory over the Saudis (but more on that later) –, his brother – forward Mohammed Abdulrahman – arrived from the bench for the final twenty minutes in what could have proven the calamitous anti-climax to Al-Suqour’s (The Falcons’) World Cup hopes.
From assessment of this testimony then, it appears evident that a shamelessly inherent sense of entitlement pervades these minor, albeit oil-rich and entrepreneur-enticing, states, not least in sport as a competitive microcosm of distinct regional societies broadly degraded as ultra-capitalist, murderously enterprising – to the extent that the lives of South East Asian slave workers are weekly outlays – and unabashedly self-absorbed. To a certain degree, these generally retorted narratives of Gulf culture are accurately befitting, though in failing to encapsulate the juxtaposition of the prevalent suburban slums and poverty that consumes even nationals – more so in Saudi Arabia, as a vaster nation, than in neighbouring states, where the vast degree is centred upon opposing spectrums of migrant populations, either subjects of mismanaged finances, or tortured slave workers – no commentator can truly comprehend the true reality unless they record a personal perspective.
Without wishing to distort into an intricate socio-economic rationalisation for the success of the Saudi Arabian football team, I believe the individual circumstance of poverty, as a prominent subject undesirable for the monarchy, but socially inevitable, in national discussion across the Peninsula’s largest state has had a tangible impact on Saudi culture, and as such has come to be a representative factor of Bert van Marwijk’s side. The vulnerability of Saudi citizens trapped in economic inopportunity – namely the 14.675% of national population that live in rural areas, equal to a cumulative 4,625,765 citizens, or even the 66.74%, or 21,038,718-strong population that aren’t fortunate enough to live as CEO’s in Riyadh or Jeddah – is in considerable contrast to effective city states Qatar (95.39% urban population), Bahrain (91.88%), Kuwait (91.67%) and the UAE (84.61%), who each rank higher in nominal GDP per capita tables courtesy of the IMF and UN. The hereditary geopolitical responsibility that comes with being the largest and most historic regional nation also weighs heavily on the Saudi psyche, effectively sustaining the economic markets of the Peninsula and acting annually as the accommodating host while millions of global Muslims fulfil their Hajj to the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Regarded, and perhaps defined, under these terms, then, there is a pervading responsibility to any action Saudi Arabia is seen to take, regardless of context or industry. Tellingly, the fact that both the current 25 selected national team representatives and the preceding 18 players called up all ply their domestic trade within confines of Saudi borders, represents a distinctive communal belief, enforced by duty or not, in the national system. Among these 43 noted figures, 37 are presently registered with the four ever-present founding clubs of the Saudi Professional League (SPL); 13 with historically dominant reigning champions Al-Hilal, 12 with Jeddah’s six-time runners-up and 2015-16 champions Al-Ahli, nine with seven-time victors Al-Nassr – the Riyadh-based rivals to Al-Hilal – and three from Al-Ittihad, previously Jeddah’s pre-eminent outfit with eight league trophies, signalling a definite establishment-embracing approach. Such a synopsis reveals itself as strictly apparent when including Al-Shabab, the third of the capital’s clubs, who while only producing a single current national team representative, complete the quintet of key metropolitan clubs in ownership of stadiums capable of seating more than 24,000 apparent supporters amongst the 14 SPL sides; in fact, sharing the 62,685-capacity King Fahd International Stadium with their fellow Riyadh competitors, while both Jeddah clubs employ the marginally less grandiose 62,000-seater King Abdullah Sports Facility.
Policing national selection to such drastic lengths to add value to domestic competition is a route much-traversed in all sporting sectors, with varying degrees of success exemplified by the English and Welsh Rugby Union Boards, who have been accused of breaching EU regulations, while also strengthening respective championships to the extent that Hendon’s Saracens have won consecutive European Champions Cups with eight current England internationals; the first English victors since Wasps in 2007. As there have been victims at the hands of self-imposed selection restrictions in these establishments – notably Armitage brothers Steffon and Delon, Toby Flood, Nick Abendanon and David Strettle – English non-league journeyman and Arsenal/West Ham academy graduate Ahmed Abdulla, still only 25 but in regression from Barnet, Whitehawk and Staines glory days at Isthmian North Division side Ware, can count himself an unfortunate martyr to geopolitical priorities in the nation of his birth, similarly, I would imagine, to Portuguese third division players Abdullah Alhawsawi and Sulaiman Al Nuwairah, whose talent must be at least comparable to that of the SPL. Unless you couldn’t tell I was in the very depths of Wikipedia – amongst other sources – while researching these names, I’ll segue into another inconsequential but fascinatingly incidental titbit for you; Louletano D.C., the aforementioned Portuguese club, used to play home games at the Estádio Algarve – a 30,000 capacity concrete hunk built for Euro 2004, and the home of Greece’s only defeat that summer (to Russia), before being an unbeaten site for the Portuguese national team (six wins, two friendly draws) and the supposedly temporary home venue for Gibraltar that tomorrow night hosts another round of qualifying, against Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, I’ve truly indulged myself in futile trivia.
It is not the drastic characteristic prerogative of manager Bert van Marwijk to select individuals based purely on their loyalty to an ineffective, stalling domestic division – Al-Hilal’s 2014 Asian Champions League final defeat to the Western Sydney Wanderers the only involvement of a Saudi side at that stage in the past five seasons, from a nation that reached five finals between 1985 and 1995, and were victorious on three occasions between 2000 and 2005 – either, condemning him to the role of an SAFF puppet. Despite managing the notorious egos of the Dutch 2010 World Cup squad – only nine of whom were Eredivisie players at the time – to the very brink of historic global accomplishment with a combative style with Wesley Sneijder as focal point, the personal reward for a calamitous Euro 2012 campaign and an increasingly inept 143-day spell at Hamburg was his August 2015 appointment by then-SAFF President Ahmad Eid Al Harbi; since replaced by Adel bin Mohammed Ezzat, a former CEO in Saudi Paper Manufacturing, Saudi Toyota Managing Director and Operations Manager of Procter and Gamble’s Saudi arm, of all things. Distance from the national autocracy, due to his elevation from purely business roles to the role of SAFF President, is the image signalled to outsiders by the appointment, yet in service entirely reliant on direct communication with leagues, clubs and delegative staff, royalty and oligarchy is rarely far away, especially at the helm of leading establishments dependent on funding only Princes and trusted governmental aides are capable of providing.
How are van Marwijk and his playing representatives coping with the inevitable pressure of being rendered a mere political pawn by ongoing Arabian revelations, considering the shady spectre of oligarchy over proceedings, though? Prior to June’s narrow, and potentially decisive, 3-2 defeat in a 7,257-mile excursion – or 16-hour flight – to Adelaide, the Falcons had only suffered a single defeat in the previous two years and four months; another slender ousting following a long-haul, 5,419-mile flight, this time by Japan, 2-1. Reasserting their position behind Japan throughout proceedings, and heaping all threat of embarrassment on a transitional Australia outfit, for whom the play-offs appeared a more daunting resort match by match, van Marwijk’s experienced, perhaps mature squad – a current average age of 27.16 years, with a cumulative total of 874 caps, or 34.96 each – cut a resolute stance, especially at home, where they haven’t been defeated since November 2014, to Qatar in the Gulf Cup of Nations.
Ultimately, Tuesday evening’s defeat at Al Ain’s sparsely-populated Hazza Bin Hayed Stadium, in which almost entire dominance in deployment of an orgasmic, progressive passing game was betrayed in the scoreline by a beautifully instantaneous piece of toe-cap control to reverse the direction of a Mohamed Ahmed cross into an unstoppable laces-first strike from Ali Ahmed Mabkhout, before an hour-mark wunderstrike from Ahmed Khalil, could prove undermining the entire prior qualifying process. The mounting frustration of striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, not only in not adding to his joint-leading goals tally of all qualifying participants globally (16 from 17 matches, including five against Timor-Leste), personified, in a perpetually aggrieved example, what could become of this ambition providing, in the most likely circumstances, they oust their Asian fourth-round qualifying opponents; currently projected to be Syria, but potentially South Korea, Uzbekistan or China, depending on this coming Tuesday’s results, before entering a winner-takes-all inter-continental scenario against North America’s fourth-placed side; either Panama, Honduras or the USA.
Why the play-offs? Currently sat second with sixteen points, still behind Japan, but only ahead of their Southern rivals on goal difference (+6 to +4), their final fixture pits them against Japan, while the Socceroos host effective pummelling bags Thailand (22 goals conceded in nine matches). Home advantage may play into the Saudis’ hands on the stage, but tasked with deterring Australia’s progress by beating whatever fathomable punishment the honorary Asians dispense against Vahid Halilhodžić’s Japanese side, who have leaked a mere six goals on the route to securing qualification, the target materialises as entirely unfeasible. Securing any points will prove the fundamental primary task to ward off any apparent insurgence into the considerable goal difference deficit (+6 to -2) the UAE (13 points) face to clamber into a play-off position.
It could have been so much easier. It should have been so much easier. A defeatist motto spawned from wizened cynicism and ignorant of the psychological, let alone physiological, demands and investments of a World Cup qualifying campaign amidst geopolitical upheaval and national dependence on achievement, traversing the distance of the globe just to attempt to qualify for the right to play three matches on the grandest stage of all. They may be derided as undeserving of the lucrative accolade ahead of some noteworthy competitors, but to focus entirely on widely-reported political and socio-economic circumstance of prospective representative nations, I have now established within myself, degrades the factual accomplishment of these remarkably condition-defying football teams as merely consequential. If, just if, they could accomplish the phenomenal, who will be remembered 50 years hence; quarrelling politicians, or the select few who represented their nation on the highest stage of all, instilling a pride unparalleled often in human endeavour to be represented amongst such sanctified company? If anything proves the unifying force embedded within football’s fundamental framework; it is that stage. Romance tinged with grief, overshadowed by controversy or besmirched by perceived entitlement; anything is superior to insipid disregard for the selectivity and globally defining cultural circumstance of such an incomparable tournament. I, for one, am a radical convert to embracing Al-Suqour’s potential return to the contest, as for the global wealth of football’s riches to diversify, it must embrace guests who, sometimes, may not be entirely welcome.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!