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Tokyo Olympics – Preview: Saudi Arabia determined to impress on long awaited return


Tokyo: A quarter of a century since their first and only appearance in men’s football at the Olympic Games, Saudi Arabia are hopeful of leaving their mark in the Japanese capital.

The Green Falcons were the first Group D side to arrive in Japan following a week-long training camp in the Romanian capital Bucharest.

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Overview

After leading the U20 national team to the final of the AFC U19 Championship Bahrain 2016 and the Round of 16 in the FIFA U20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017, local Saad Al Shehri was entrusted with the U23s head coach job in 2018.

A former international midfielder at U20 level, Al Shehri was forced to retire early due to injuries and turned to coaching, creating a name for himself with his hometown club Al Ettifaq, who he rescued from a relegation battle and guided to a top-four finish in the Saudi Pro League for the first time in eight years.

#AFCU23 - Final: Korea Republic 1-0 Saudi Arabia (AET)

Just as he did with the U20s, the 41-year-old took Saudi Arabia U23 to the edge of glory, reaching the final of the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020, but once more they were left disappointed at the final hurdle, losing to Korea Republic in extra time to settle for silver, but that run was enough to earn the Saudis a historic return to Olympic football.

A comprehensive six-stage preparation programme was set in motion since October 2020, with the Green Falcons playing out a goalless draw against their would-be Group D opponents Cote d’Ivoire in Jeddah.

Friendlies against South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Liberia, Uganda and Romania followed over the course of the next eight months as the team trained in Dammam, Jeddah, Riyadh, Spain and Romania.

Overage players Yasser Al Shahrani, Salman Al Faraj and Salem Al Dawsari joined the last two stages of the preparation of completing their Saudi Pro League and AFC Champions League commitments with Al Hilal.

History

Following the senior team’s debut at the FIFA World Cup two years earlier, and in the year they lifted the 1996 AFC Asian Cup, Saudi Arabia’s golden years in the 1990s saw the U23s make their only appearance at the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996.

The Saudis finished third in the Asian Qualifiers then, pipping Iraq to the final ticket to the United States, where they joined Japan and Korea Republic as the continent’s representatives.

Pitted against vastly more experienced Spain, France and Australia sides in the tournament, it was never going to be an easy debut.

A late Oscar goal downed them in the first game against Spain.

Late defender Mohammed Al Khilaiwi scored Saudi Arabia’s first-ever goal at the Olympics to cancel out Peter Tsekenis opener for Australia before Mark Viduka won it for the Olyroos in the second half.

Midfielder Fouad Anwar became the only Saudi player to find the back of the net at both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics as the Saudis bowed out with a 2-1 defeat against France to finish bottom of their group.


Key Players

Salem Al Dawsari

There was little surprise when Al Dawsari was called up by Al Shehri as one of the three overage players in the Saudi squad. The nation’s talisman aims to lead by example as he sets out to join Anwar in becoming a scorer at both the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, having bagged Saudi Arabia’s winner in the 2-1 victory over Egypt in Russia 2018.

Abdulrahman Ghareeb

In a somewhat disappointing campaign for his club side Al Ahli, Ghareeb stood out as a star in the making. The 24-year-old had a season to remember with a career-best six goals and four assists in 24 Saudi Pro League matches and he also took his hot form to the AFC Champions League where he scored twice in six appearances for his boyhood club.

Mukhtar Ali

Chelsea academy graduate Ali returned to his birthplace in 2017, pledging allegiances to Saudi Arabia having previously represented England at youth levels. And since swapping the Netherlands where he played two seasons on loan at Vitesse Arnheim for Al Nassr, the midfielder has established himself as key cog in Al Shehri’s Saudi U23 team.


Group Challengers

If Saudi Arabia’s maiden campaign in 1996 set them up against tough opponents in Spain and France, their return to Olympic football will not be any easier with a fiery Group D to look forward to.

With all but one of their 22 players based in Europe, Cote d’Ivoire will be the Green Falcons’ first test in Tokyo.

The challenge only grows as the Saudis lock horns with both finalists from the previous edition.

Silver-medallists in Rio 2016, Germany might not have called up any established senior stars but Die Mannschaft boast a proud tradition of competing at the Olympics and will be no means by an easy opponent.

Then there are the reigning champions to round up the group. Led by the likes of the legendary Dani Alves, Everton’s Richarlison and Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli, the Seleção will be the last of three daunting tasks for the Saudis.

The task at hand might seem impossible, but with solid preparation behind them and a desire to create history, nothing is beyond Al Shehri’s men in Tokyo.

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