Mancini’s Saudi Arabia taking shape: 5 things learned from Asian World Cup qualifiers

What a year: How Saudi football has flourished since World Cup win over Argentina

On Nov. 22, 2022, Saudi Arabia’s footballers pulled off a sporting miracle.

Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari scored two goals to give the Green Falcons a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Argentina at the World Cup in Qatar.

It was a stunning result that had the thousands of fans at the Lusail Stadium and millions more around the world celebrating.

When the Saudi players walked off the pitch at halftime, trailing to Lionel Messi’s penalty strike, not even the most optimistic of supporters would have given them much chance of a comeback.

But Herve Renard’s halftime team-talk reenergized the players and they went on to play the 45 minutes of their lives.

Such a result against the eventual winners would have been the highlight of the decade for most countries. But it turned out to be just the spark for a new era of football in the Kingdom.

Just weeks after a wild-eyed Messi trudged off that pitch shaking his head, a much-happier looking Cristiano Ronaldo was putting pen to paper to sign for Al-Nassr. The headlines around the world reflected even more disbelief. One of the two most recognizable football players of the 21st century came to Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam to play football (and Messi almost did). Once again, this was a development that signaled the start of something new.

Ronaldo came halfway through the 2022-23 season. He was followed by a whole host of stars, like Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Ruben Neves, Yassine Bounou, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy, Aymeric Laporte and Aleksandar Mitrovic, to name but a few.

Ever since, the eyes of the world have been on the league and the action this season has been enthralling. Saudi Arabian sides dominated the King Salman Club Cup and are going well in the Asian Champions League.

It is understandable that the focus has been on the foreign players: Ronaldo has one of the most recognizable faces on the planet. But visit any major city around the world and there is now a reasonable chance you will see the yellow shirts of Al-Nassr flying in shop windows and market stalls, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

Clubs like Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal, already Asian powerhouses, are now global names, with the latter reaching the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, losing 5-3 to Real Madrid after beating the champions of Africa and South America en route.

But it is not just about the big stars. There is a women’s league that is going from strength to strength and a women’s national team that has a FIFA ranking and is preparing to qualify for the 2026 AFC Asian Cup. It is huge progress in a very short space of time.

Speaking of Asian Cups, in February, the Kingdom was given the hosting rights for the 2027 continental tournament for the first time. And in October, it was confirmed that the biggest sporting event of all — the FIFA World Cup — will be heading to Saudi Arabia in 2034. That is still more than a decade away, but before the Green Falcons’ shock win over Argentina, nobody thought it could ever happen.

The men’s national team has also changed a good deal too. Renard left in March to manage the France women’s team, taking them to the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July. He was replaced in August by another sharp-dressing European tactician, Roberto Mancini, who had formerly been head coach of the Italian national side.

After a run of poor results in friendly games — albeit against some decent opposition — eyebrows were raised when Mancini left out the likes of Firas Al-Buraikan and Abdullah Al-Hamdan for his first competitive matches, qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup against Pakistan and Jordan.

The first saw his first win, a 4-0 defeat of the South Asians that started in the pouring rain in Al-Ahsa. It was followed by a much trickier test in Amman but ended 2-0, with Al-Shehri scoring twice to add to the two goals he picked up five days earlier.

Given that it was the Al-Hilal hit man who scored the first goal against Argentina to get an amazing 12 months going, it was fitting that he has been the star for Mancini so far. It is also worthy of note that Salem Al-Dawsari, still the team’s star player, was out through injury. The new boss has brought in plenty of new faces and there are signs that, with a three-man defense lining up against Jordan, he is starting to develop a new style of play too.

The results over the past week mean the team can look forward to the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar with increasing confidence. Mancini is building a side that should be able to compete and challenge for a first continental title since the last century. After that, comes the rest of the road to North America in 2026.

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