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Saudi Arabia's Green Falcons fly in under the radar

Saudi Arabia will have to scrap for every ball in Russia next summer, but they also know that a lot of pressure will be placed on the hosts when the two sides do battle on Jun. 14 at the Luzhniki Stadium. (AP)
LONDON: About the nicest thing anyone said about Saudi Arabia after the 2018 World Cup draw on Friday in Moscow came from the coach of opening game opponents Russia.
Stanislav Cherchesov said of his Group A opponents Egypt, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. “We’ve never played any of these teams and I’ve never seen them.” He went on to list players he knew from the North Africans and the South America but didn’t say anything about the Green Falcons.
When live-blogging the draw, the BBC was not enthusiastic about the prospect of a Russia vs Saudi Arabia curtain-raiser, saying that rival British terrestrial broadcaster ITV could have that game. Associated Press led with “Beleaguered World Cup gets dreary opener.”
It is hard to claim the opener between the two lowest-ranked teams (65 for the hosts and 62 for the opposition) is going to be the most glamorous game on offer next summer. The fact is the paucity of international knowledge when it comes to Saudi Arabian football is only matched by the lack of respect. Some more informed observers know that there have been three coaches of the Green Falcons in as many months. Fewer think that there is a chance of progressing to the knockout stage.
This may understandably annoy Green Falcons fans. The national team goes ignored for years by the international community and when it finally returns to the biggest stage of all, it is either ignored or dismissed.
So much the better. Being under-rated and unknown may just be one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weapons. At the very least, being written off as no-hopers before the tournament starts should serve as motivation for the players, not that any should be needed before the World Cup. In sport, there are few incentives stronger than the desire to prove others wrong.
New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi may not know much about Saudi Arabia at the moment but has seven months to become familiar. One good thing for the Argentine is that nobody else knows anything about the team either and while that will change over the coming months as analysts start to earn their money, the fact that there is a new coach looking at new players and possible systems means that there will be an air of mystery and unpredictability about Saudi Arabia next summer. Having all players on the books of Saudi clubs — at the moment at least — also makes the mist surrounding the team a little thicker.
It means that the pressure will be on Russia, Egypt and Uruguay for those Group A games. All will be expecting to win and will be expected to win by their passionate fans and an impatient media.
That is especially the case with Russia. There is no pressure like that on the hosts of the World Cup in the opening game. The country remains a controversial host and all know how much stock, time and money has been invested in the tournament.
There will be 80,000 fans packed into the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Jun. 14 to provide an intimidating atmosphere for the the Green Falcons, but one that can quickly become a weight of expectation that stifles and suffocates rather than inspires.
The Russians are better going forward than they are defending and if the Saudis can frustrate for a while, not only will they get chances at some point, they may just turn the fans from being the hosts’ biggest advantage to the exact opposite.
Opening games have thrown up surprises before. In 1990, Cameroon kicked Argentina all over the San Siro Stadium and won 1-0 against the defending champions, and the mighty France side containing Thierry Henry, Lilian Thuram and Patrick Veira lost in the curtain-raiser against Senegal in Seoul 12 years later. While Saudi Arabia may not be Cameroon or Senegal — who both reached the last eight and could have gone further — Russia are certainly no Argentina or France either.
The test will be tough for Saudi Arabia, this is the World Cup after all, but the draw is a good one and the opening game is a perfect one in which to make a huge statement.  That Saudi Arabia have already been written off only makes everything a little easier.