RIYADH: It is not hard to pick the darkest day for Saudi football on the global stage; the 8-0 thrashing by Germany at the 2002 World Cup finals will never be forgotten.
But as the day of the draw for the 2022 finals dawns on Friday, so too do thoughts of a chance for revenge, 20 years later. The Germans are one of many exciting opponents that Saudi Arabia could find themselves sharing a group with at the conclusion of the draw in Doha.
There are surely few more exciting and enjoyable days in football, off the pitch at least, than a World Cup draw, which brings with it myriad possibilities. The only thing that coach Herve Renard knows for sure ahead of time is that the Green Falcons will be in pot 4, which means all three of their opponents in the group will be above them in the FIFA rankings, so the challenge will be tough.
That was, however, also the case in 1994 when, after qualifying for the finals for the first time, Saudi Arabia found themselves in a group alongside the Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco — and still managed to finish in second spot.
What of their possible group-stage opponents this time? From pot 3, perhaps a tie with fellow Arab side Tunisia would be welcome. They are 35th in the FIFA rankings, the lowest-placed team in pot 3 (the Saudis are 49th). Or maybe Renard would welcome a reunion with Morocco, the team he took to the 2018 finals; that really would be a fascinating clash.
The Saudis cannot be placed in the same group as fellow Asian nations South Korea, Iran or Japan, so the other possibilities are Senegal — against whom they could exact some Arab revenge for eliminating Egypt — Serbia or Poland.
While a chance for payback against Germany is an attractive option, the problem with that is the four-time world champions are in pot 2 and so, although they may not be quite the force they have been in the past, facing such a traditionally tough team and another powerhouse from pot 1 would plunge the Saudis into “group of death” territory.
For Asian teams, there is always a balance to be struck between the rare chance of a competitive glamour tie against a top footballing nation and the desire for a group from which there is a realistic chance of progressing.
While there are no easy World Cup games, perhaps a clash against the USA, Mexico or Uruguay would be slightly less intimidating than lining up against Germany or the Netherlands. Other European nations such as Switzerland, Croatia and Denmark would be tough opposition but not quite as exciting.
And so to the lofty heights of pot 1. The lowest-ranked team, hosts Qatar (51st in the FIFA rankings), is not an option and the remaining seven teams obviously represent top-class opposition.
Being drawn against England would result in the Saudis being discussed in the international media like never before. A clash with France or Belgium would bring with it a whole host of big-name stars; the prospect of the likes of Ali Al-Bulaihi having to deal with Kylian Mbappe, for example, is certainly an exciting one.
South American giants Argentina and Brazil would bring an obvious sense of glamour, as well as international superstars such as Lionel Messi or Neymar. Meanwhile the chance for revenge against Spain for a 4-0 defeat during the 2006 finals would surely go down well, as would the chance to face Portuguese hero Cristiano Ronaldo in what will surely be his last World Cup appearance.
Moroccan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, meanwhile, might be a little frustrated that his team is in pot 3 with Japan, the team he led to the 2018 World Cup finals before being sacked two months before the tournament.
The Frenchman might have an emotional connection with the chance of drawing Les Bleus from the top set of seeds, However ending up in a group with Qatar would not only produce an Arab derby, it would give the Atlas Lions, who were unfortunate to be drawn against both Spain and Portugal four years ago, a real chance of reaching the latter stages of the tournament for only the second time. The first was in 1986 when they topped a group that also contained England, Poland and Portugal.
Three opponents from the same continent is not a possibility this time but Morocco might prefer a rematch with Brazil, whose surprise defeat by Norway at the 1998 World Cup prevented the North Africans from progressing to the knockout stages.
Tunisia will be relieved to have just squeezed into pot 3. As previously noted, this means a match-up with Saudi Arabia is possible. Few will forget their 2006 clash in Munich when a Sami Al-Jaber goal six minutes from time looked to have secured a 2-1 win for the Green Falcons, only for Radhi Jaidi to earn a point for the Carthage Eagles in injury time.
Meeting England or Belgium for a third time at the finals would be interesting, especially the chance to avenge that late Harry Kane winner from four years ago. A 2-1 victory over Panama in their last game of the 2018 tournament was Tunisia’s first win at the finals since their debut against Mexico 40 years, and 13 games, earlier.
And what of hosts Qatar, who are making their World Cup debut? Placed among the top seeds, there is a chance that the Asian champions can progress but their fans nevertheless would surely love a match against a big name such as Germany or the Netherlands from pot 2. After that, Morocco or Tunisia would be welcome opponents, from a regional perspective, and then it remains to be seen which teams make it through the play-offs to claim the remaining spots in pot 4.
Whatever happens on Friday, the wait to discover the opponents that lie in wait will be over and the final countdown to the 2022 World Cup finals can really begin.
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