For Saudi Arabian football, the road to the 2024 Paris Olympics starts on Wednesday. The journey to France will be a long one, but should be successful in the end.
To qualify for France, Saudi Arabia will have to finish in the top three of the 2022 Asian U23 Championships. However, the young Falcons first have to qualify for that continental tournament which will be held next year.
That campaign to reach the Asian championships starts on Wednesday when Saudi Arabia meet Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
Usually, taking on the host nation is no easy task, especially in the opening game, but this time it should not be a huge deal. This is because the Central Asian nation are also hosts of the Asian Championships next year. Their presence is already guaranteed, which means their results will not be counted.
That, in turn, means there are only two games of note in Group D. If Saudi Arabia finish above Kuwait, whom they face on Saturday, and then Bangladesh, a team they take on three days later, then the deal is sealed.
Even if the top spot is not seized, then all is not lost. There is still a place in Uzbekistan for four of the best 11 teams that finish in second.
In truth, it should not be a problem to get there. Saudi Arabia has a promising U23 team, as was seen last summer at the Olympics. In fact, it is more than promising, and the team is one of the best in Asia.
That was apparent in Japan. Tokyo 2020 may have ended with no points from three matches from a team that promised much, but there was plenty to be happy about.
Saudi Arabia were in the toughest of groups, which included Brazil, Ivory Coast and Germany, and lost all three games. However, that was not the full story. In all of the clashes, the Saudis were in with a chance of points until late in the game. What cost the team was a lack of ruthlessness in attack and, at times, inconsistent defending.
On the face of it, to finish pointless was a disappointment, but the team’s performance in the face of quality opposition was more than encouraging.
Coach Saad Al-Shehri kept his position as head coach and now has the job of taking the team to the AFC U23 Championships next June in Uzbekistan.
There is plenty of talent in the team, though Al-Shehri has had to battle with the clubs to get the players he wants, such as Firas Al-Buraikan and Abdullah Al-Hamdan. It is understandable that the head coach would like more time with the talented forward. He also understands that his club counterparts feel the same way.
“The clubs in the Saudi Professional League naturally want to keep their players as long as possible,” Al-Shehri said. “It is not easy for anyone as the games are not part of FIFA’s official matchdays. We would have liked to have spent more time with the players we had with us last week, but we have only two days to prepare. We will do our best, however.”
He added: “We know what we have to do and we will not be underestimating any of the teams that we have to face here. Every team is difficult to beat and every game is difficult. If we are not at our best then we will pay the price.”
While Saudi Arabia should be confident of qualifying for the U23 Championship, there have been, so far, mixed results from Arab teams.
In Group A Qatar defeated Yemen 3-0, while Syria thrashed Sri Lanka 5-0. In Group C, Iraq beat Maldives to go top, while Jordan defeated Turkmenistan 1-0. The setbacks so far have come with Lebanon losing 1-0 to Tajikistan, UAE suffering a 2-1 loss against Kyrgyzstan and Oman losing 2-1 to India.
Saudi Arabia should be able to add some wins to the Arab column, however. The young Falcons have what it takes to go all the way to Uzbekistan next year and then France two years later.
“We are looking to get off to a winning start,” said the Saudi coach. “But we know that there is much work to be done.”