In truth, I know next to nothing about the Saudi Arabia national team. Which actually doesn’t matter much, because apparently they really suck.
By any objective measure, the Saudis will enter the World Cup as the worst team in the field. Their FIFA ranking of 67th is the lowest of all the nations that qualified. The more statistically nuanced ELO Ratings have them at 63rd in the world, which is also the lowest in the field. All the sportsbooks give Saudi Arabia the longest odds of winning the tournament. (The typical number has them at 1,000 to one.) The team is just not good. At all.
Which isn’t really a surprise. The vast majority of soccer fans will have never seen or even heard of any of Saudi Arabia’s players. That’s because every last one of the Saudis called up for the World Cup play in the domestic Saudi league. In fact, 17 of the 23 guys on the roster play for one of two Saudi clubs: Al-Ahli or Al-Hilal. Unless you’re really twisting the hell out of your TV’s rabbit ears to pick up signals from the Saudi Pro League, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the first time you’ll have seen any of these players will be when they take the pitch against Russia in the World Cup’s opening match.
The Saudi soccer authorities are aware of the problem of their entire national team comprised of players from a lesser league, and have made some ... interesting moves of late in an attempt to remedy this. The biggest one came when the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia struck a deal with their Spanish counterparts that saw nine Saudi players spend last season on loan at various Spanish clubs, including three players going to La Liga.
Ostensibly the agreement was aimed at getting some of Saudi Arabia’s better players exposure and experience at the highest levels of the game. The more cynical interpretation was that it was another effort on the country’s part to deepen their ties with the big powers of the most popular sport in the world, using that tried and true Saudi technique of gaining influence by buying it. In reality, between the three Saudis that joined La Liga (Salmam Al-Dawsari at Villarreal, Fahad Al-Muwallad at Levante, and Yahia Al-Shehri at Leganés), the combined playing time of the only two players who made it onto the pitch for a league game was a whopping 56 minutes.
We’re only a couple weeks away from knowing for sure whether those 56 minutes of La Liga action will prove good enough to get Saudi Arabia out of the group stage for the first time since their first World Cup in 1994. Something tells us that it isn’t likely.
Goalkeepers: Yasser Al Mosailem (Al-Ahli), Abdullah Al-Mayouf (Al-Hilal), Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Ahli)
Defenders: Osama Hawsawi (Al-Hilal), Omar Hawsawi (Al-Nassr), Mansoor Al-Harbi (Al-Ahli), Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Motaz Hawsawi (Al-Ahli), Mohammed Al-Breik (Al-Hilal), Ali Al Bulaihi (Al-Hilal)
Midfielders: Taisir Al-Jassim (Al-Ahli), Yahya Al-Shehri (Al-Nassr), Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Ittihad), Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Abdulmalek Al-Khaibri (Al-Hilal), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Housain Al-Mogahwi (Al-Ahli), Abdullah Otayf (Al-Hilal), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), Abdullah Al-Khaibari (Al-Shabab), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab)
Forwards: Mohammad Al-Sahlawi (Al-Nassr), Muhannad Assiri (Al-Ahli)
The Green Falcons
Juan Antonio Pizzi
Saudi Arabia’s biggest goal threat is their striker, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi. Al-Sahlawi has an impressive scoring record of 28 goals in 39 matches with the national team. Thus, logic would tell you that if you want to watch any one Saudi player, and if the one thing fans care most about seeing are goals, then Al-Sahlawi should be the player to watch.
But let’s think about that a little more. Al-Sahlawi does score all the time for his country, but he’s racked up the bulk of those by bullying the terrible Asian Federation opponents Saudi Arabia regularly spank. The Green Falcons aren’t going to boss Uruguay or Russia the way they do Thailand and Timor-Leste. Thus, the tap-ins Al-Sahlawi feasts on in the typical Saudi Arabia match won’t be anywhere near as prevalent in the World Cup as they were in Asian qualifying. So if you’re looking for one Saudi player to lock onto this summer, it shouldn’t be a flat-track bully like Al-Sahlawi.
Allow me to suggest Fahad Al-Muwallad as an alternative. Al-Muwallad, you see, is fast. Al-Muwallad has swag. Al-Muwallad has a rocket launcher for a right foot. Al-Muwallad is the kind of player who can do something awesome no matter who he’s playing against.
A 23-year-old wide man, Al-Muwallad is Saudi Arabia’s bounding, boundlessly energetic force of chaos. Judging off the highlights above—in which he can be seen breezing past defenders as if they moved in slow motion, blasting the ball into the upper corners of the net, scoring a beauty of an outside-the-box bicycle kick, chipping a goalkeeper by flipping the ball some 15 feet in the air before it comes down and bounces over the goal line, dinking another keeper with a cheeky Panenka penalty, and altogether freaking the fuck out in celebration of many of these assorted highlight reel plays—you can bet on Al-Muwallad attempting one or two highlight reel–worthy plays. And it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think one or two of those moves of his just might come off, too.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this already but Saudi Arabia are the worst team in the World Cup. They know this, their opponents know this, and their smart, Argentina-born Spanish manager Juan Antonio Pizzi will have prepared them for this fact. Which is to say, expect lots of defending, long balls out to the attacking midfielders to spark counters, and hopeful shots from distance or crosses from wide. It won’t be pretty, but then again World Cup games by the worst teams in the tournament rarely are.
All times Eastern
June 14, 11 a.m.: Russia vs. Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium
June 20, 11 a.m.: Uruguay vs. Saudi Arabia at Rostov Arena
June 25, 10 a.m.: Saudi Arabia vs. Egypt at Volgograd Arena