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Saudis play long game in quest for growth

Australia face an emerging footballing power in Saudi Arabia at Parramatta’s Commbank Stadium on Thursday night, one which is here to stay.

Having already knocked over Japan in qualifying, defeating Australia would have The Green Falcons more or less assured of a place at the 2022 World Cup in neighbouring Qatar.

While the kingdom has been to five World Cups in the past, they have only made it out of the group stage once.

Consistency and excellence on the global stage has been lacking, but that could be about to change.

Fellow oil-rich states have used football as a means to wield soft power for well over a decade but the Saudis have been slow out of the blocks.

Now they’re making up for lost time with sport a key tool in Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s attempts to modernise the image of a country that is tarnished by its links with jihadism, its human rights record and Yemen interventions.

The takeover of English Premier League club Newcastle United is part of that vision, as is bringing events such as the Italian Supercoppa, the Dakar rally, and Anthony Joshua’s second bout with Andy Ruiz Jr to the country.

Domestic heavyweights Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr both made it to the last four of the AFC Champions League and the national side has shot up from 126th in the FIFA rankings in 2012 to now stand at No.49.

Their goal is to become a regular in the game’s top 20.

“Saudi Arabia has huge potential in terms of football,” said manager Herve Renard.

“There are a lot of skills and it has very good teams which you can see are doing very well in the Asian Champions League.

“There is a long-term (goal) to reach the highest level in FIFA ranking, but the first goal is to qualify for the World Cup 2022.”

Renard is the perfect man for the job having enjoyed a career which has seen him become the go-to hire for nation building.

He won the African Cup of Nations with the Ivory Coast and Zambia and has yet to taste defeat in competitive games with a Saudi side that is on a nine-game winning streak.

While state-of-the-art facilities are springing up across the country, ventures further afield – and not just at Newcastle – are at play.

Inter Milan could be the next club assumed into the nation’s growing sports apparatus, while in 2018 La Liga announced a peculiar deal where nine Saudi players were loaned to Spanish clubs.

One of those players was skipper Salem Al-Dawsari, who played just one game as a substitute with Villareal and is part of a squad entirely drawn from the Saudi Professional League.

“We have all the confidence in our coach and the past few years the team have progressed particularly in terms of discipline,” he said.

“Now all the players who represent the Saudi team deserve to be in the squad.

“It is discipline and stability in the team, those are the two factors that contribute to what we see now.”

Regular goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais and left-back Yasser Al-Shahrani are both out of Thursday’s clash, but the Saudis will be hoping to sit back, soak up pressure and hit Australia on the counter.

Australia’s sole loss in eight meetings with Saudi Arabia was in a dead rubber at the 1997 Confederations Cup group stage.

Even if the Socceroos do get the victory they crave on Thursday, the growing influence of Saudi Arabia on world football is bound to remain.

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