Nineteen years ago in Sapporo, Saudi Arabia’s footballers endured one of their worst experiences, losing 8-0 to Germany in their first game at the 2002 World Cup.
On Thursday, the Olympic team has a chance to flip memories of that northern Japanese city into something much happier. A win against Ivory Coast in the opening Group D game of the Tokyo Olympics would exorcise a lot of demons.
For one, it would end that unwelcome record of six Olympic games played and six lost. Those campaigns were from 1984 and 1996, however, and it really is time to start a new page. Most importantly though, a win will get the Olympic campaign going with a bang.
Coach Saad Al-Shehri knows that if there is any chance to go to the quarter-finals then victory over the African side is necessary with games against the 2016 silver and gold medallists — Germany and Brazil respectively — to follow. It is the toughest of groups with those two installed as second and sixth favorites by the bookies to win in Tokyo. In contrast, the young Falcons are 250-1 outsiders, along with South Africa.
That is indeed a long shot but then looking on the bright side, there is no pressure. Anything other than three defeats out of three will be a huge improvement on what has gone before. Being in with a chance of progression going into the final group game would be welcome.
There are other reasons to be positive. Preparation for the Saudis has been much better than most. Inside the past two months, there have been three training camps: In Spain, at home and Romania, with six games played. Al-Shehri knows, pretty much, what his strongest 11 is. Dramas have been few and far between and the only injury worry, that of Al-Nassr center-back Abdulelah Al-Amri has cleared. The defense looks fairly settled, goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie has impressed and there is guile and creativity in midfield.
More chances have to be created, however, as that has been a concern in the build-up and when the team has come up against an energetic press, they have not looked completely comfortable, though this is what warm-up games are designed for.
The other positive may not end up being that helpful at all. Ivory Coast saw their training camps, as well as games against Uzbekistan and South Korea, canceled. While that may mean the Africans come to the tournament a little cold, it also means that the Saudi Arabian coaching staff do not know as much about them as would otherwise be the case.
Al-Shehri will, however, know that Manchester United winger Amad Diallo and defender Eric Bailly are part of the squad as is Milan midfielder Franck Kessie. Ivory Coast are unpredictable.
Next opponents Germany are not. Runners-up in 2016, the team lacks some of the stars that others have called up but it is packed full of Bundesliga talent including former full international Max Kruse. Taking on Brazil in the final game could be a good thing for Saudi Arabia. Al-Shehri will hope that by then the South Americans would have already booked their place in the knockout stage and will be resting the likes of Dani Alves, Richarlison and Gabriel Martinelli.
That is not going to be the case for the Arab world’s other hope, Egypt. While they have a much better Olympic pedigree than Saudi Arabia and reached the last eight back in 2012, the opening game could not be more difficult as it comes against Spain, considered to be the favorites for Olympic gold.
Thanks to a La Liga rule that states that domestic clubs must release players for the Olympics, no less than six of the squad that reached the past four of the recent European Championships will head to Tokyo. This number includes Pedri, one of the sensations of that tournament.
With more attention in Egypt focusing on who is not going to Japan, such as Mohamed Salah, the young Pharaohs are going to have their work cut out. Perhaps the best hope is that after a hectic season in Europe, Spain will be tired.
Then comes another tough clash against Argentina. The South Americans are always hard to beat but there is the chance of a point. If the North Africans are still in the running after those two games, they will fancy their chances against Australia. Much depends on the form of defender Ahmed Hegazi, who impressed in the English Premier League for West Bromwich Albion before moving to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad last October and becoming perhaps the best performer in the entire league. If he can inspire the backline to stay tight then there is always a chance.
Overall though, both Egypt and especially Saudi Arabia have been handed an incredibly tough draw and getting out of their groups would be a huge achievement. This may take away a lot of the pressure that usually surrounds both teams but it remains to be seen if this is a consolation when they take the field against Brazil and Spain. The overriding message from fans has to be “Good luck, you’ll need it!”