RIYADH: Nearly 15 months on from their last competitive appearance, the final week of March signals the return of the Saudi Arabian national football team to action in the 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers.
The Green Falcons welcome neighbours Kuwait to Riyadh for an international friendly on Thursday the March 25 as they prepare to face Palestine five days later in what will be their first qualifying match since November 2019.
Coach Herve Renard’s men sit in second place in Group D with eight points, one point behind the leaders Uzbekistan but with a game in hand. A win against bottom-placed Palestine will put Saudi Arabia in the driving seat and continue their unbeaten run on the journey to Qatar 2022 and China 2023.
Earlier this month, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) awarded Saudi Arabia the hosting rights for the remaining Group D matches, taking place in June with the Green Falcons, Palestine and Uzbekistan joined by Yemen and Singapore.
Renard made 10 changes to his 26-man squad for the two March fixtures from his last selection that contested the Gulf Cup final in December 2019. While some of the replacements were forced by injuries to key men such as skipper Salman Al-Faraj and winger Abdulfattah Asiri, a changing of the guard is also taking place.
Seven players could make their international debuts over the next week, with an average age of 24. Veterans Nawaf Al-Abed and Yahya Al-Shehri find themselves outside the squad having turned the wrong side of 30 since their most recent call-ups.
While Al-Ahli’s Mohammed Al-Owais is expected to retain the number one spot, three further goalkeepers have been called up; 23-year-old Amin Bukhari, 24-year-old Zaid Al-Bawardi and 30-year-old Abdullah Al-Owaisheer.
At the back, Renard opted for familiarity, with Abdulelah Al-Amri the only new face among eight established defenders. In the middle of the park Al-Ahli’s Ali Al-Asmari and Al-Hilal’s Nasser Al-Dawsari could enjoy their international debuts. Al-Qadisiyah’s Hassan Al-Amri earned a place in the national team’s attack thanks to his 11 goals in the Saudi Pro League this season.
Saudi Arabia’s age group national teams will also be busy.
As Japan confirmed that the world’s premier sporting event — postponed from 2020 — is going ahead this summer, albeit without international spectators, excitement is building up in Saudi. Coach Saad Al-Shehri’s young Falcons gear up for what will be the country’s first appearance in Olympic football since Atlanta 1996. The U23s up their preparations for the Tokyo Olympics with back-to-back friendlies against Liberia on March 27 and 30.
After their AFC Asian Cup competitions for 2021 were cancelled due to the pandemic, the U20s and U17s are now preparing for the 2023 tournaments.
U17 head coach Abdulwahab Al-Harbi has had to adjust to these changes, going on four scouting missions to cover all corners of the Kingdom, with 127 players born in 2006 or later undergoing trials to form the basis of the U17 team competing in two years’ time. The 36-man extended squad will enroll in a 10-day training camp in Dammam between March 27 and April 6.
Scouting sessions for the U20s continue in Jeddah, with 38 players born in 2003 or after being trialed, ahead of shortlisting players for the extended squad for the 2023 AFC U20 Asian Cup.
After more than a year of inaction, Saudi’s best footballers of all ages have a busy schedule in the coming months.