Over that period, the Green Falcons were one of Asia’s top sides, representing the continent with distinction on the global stage. In addition to their World Cup achievements, the Saudis also won the 1996 AFC Asian Cup title and finished runners-up in the 2000 and 2007 editions.After that sustained period of success, the team’s fortunes changed abruptly, leaving fans not a little perplexed. The lean spell began with their failure to qualify directly for South Africa 2010 after finishing third behind Korea Republic and Korea DPR in their group. There was further disappointment in the subsequent play-off, when they fell to a shock defeat against Bahrain.
In the following years, performance levels plummeted further as the Kingdom’s side crashed out of the 2011 Asian Cup in the first round and failed to even feature in the final round of AFC qualifying for Brazil 2014. Indeed, Saudi Arabia managed just a solitary win in Group D, finishing third behind Australia and Oman. Then, to add insult to injury, the team were eliminated in the first round of the 2015 Asian Cup.
This decline in fortunes prompted frequent changes to the technical staff, with seven different coaches all failing to arrest the slide. That was until the Saudi Football Association managed to attract one of four coaches to have qualified for the previous two editions of the World Cup. For Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, who took up the reins on 26 August 2015, there was to be no gentle introduction, with the second round of qualifiers for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ having just kicked off.
The Green Falcon had just recorded their first victory of the qualifiers – a last-gasp 3-2 win over Palestine. With the domestic season already underway, Van Marwijk and his assistants immediately set about studying their players, relying on their own assessments and experience. The team hit the ground running, with the Dutchman overseeing an emphatic 7-0 victory against Timor-Leste in his first match in charge.
A former player during the era of Dutch Total Football, Van Marwijk continued in the same vein, with wins over Malaysia and a strong United Arab Emirates side giving his charges the confidence that they could again compete with the best. In their seven Round 2 qualifying games, which ended in March 2016, the Saudis recorded six wins and two draws to top Group B with 20 points, scoring 28 goals and conceding just four in the process.
How did Van Marwijk turn around the team’s fortunes in just seven months?
- He developed and stuck with a 4-3-3 formation.
- He established the elements he considered fundamental to a sustainable playing system.
- He made changes of his own and gave players the opportunity to engage with his plans.