June 6, 2017 / 9:12 AM / in 2 months

Saudis eye return to top table at 2018 World Cup

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FILE PHOTO: Football Soccer - Thailand v Saudi Arabia - 2018 World Cup Qualifiers - Bangkok, Thailand - 23/3/17 - Saudi players celebrate at the end of the match with Thailand.Athit Perawongmetha

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - For more than a decade, Saudi Arabia's footballers have been forced to sit on the sidelines of the World Cup, waiting to add to one of the strongest legacies in the Asian game.

Four consecutive appearances at the finals came to an end with a whimper in Germany in 2006, where they finished bottom of their group after being served a 4-0 thrashing by Ukraine.

Since then, the Saudis have rarely looked capable of mounting a serious challenge for a berth at the World Cup finals, or even of fighting it out for the continental titles that were once commonplace.

That, though, could be set to change thanks to a revival being led by Bert van Marwijk, a coach who is no stranger to World Cup success.

On Thursday, the Saudi team the Dutchman has led since 2015 could take a significant step towards ending the Gulf state's absence from the game's greatest showpiece.

Victory over Australia, the current Asian champions, will put Saudi Arabia on the cusp of qualifying for next year's tournament in Russia.

"For such a long time, we didn't have a really strong group of players like what we have now," former Saudi Arabia striker Sami Al Jaber, who represented the country at every World Cup from 1994 to 2006, told Reuters.

"This time the players we have, they have taken more responsibility than before. They know what it means to play for the national team and what it means to the country to go to the World Cup. That's the first thing.

"And secondly, I think what van Marwijk has done is an amazing job. In football it's about a chain.

"It's not just about players and their technical ability or motivation, or about the plan that we put in place two years ago, it's also about van Marwijk. He understands the situation in Saudi Arabia."

In 2010, while the Saudis were at home ruing the first of two straight World Cup misses, van Marwijk was leading his native Netherlands into the final against Spain on a bitterly cold night in Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium.

Dealing with the notorious factionalism of the Dutch squad is one thing but Saudi Arabia offers quite a different challenge.

Significant Pressure

The country's football landscape is heavily influenced by the ruling family, with wealthy princes often controlling the course taken by coaches and players alike.

Demands for success are high and the pressure significant in a nation where oil wealth has bought international prominence in other areas, but in recent times has not delivered on the football field.

After a run of six appearances in the final of the Asian Cup across seven tournaments - winning three of them - Saudi Arabia failed to progress from their group in 2011 and 2015, bowing out of the former following an ignominious 5-0 thrashing by Japan.

Saudi clubs, too, have struggled where once they were dominant, with only three clubs reaching the final of the Asian Champions League in the last decade - most recently Al Hilal, who lost to Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers in 2014.

That was grist to the mill to those in the Gulf of Arabia who have railed against Australia joining the Asian Football Confederation in 2006.

With the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup on every occasion since Australia switched from Oceania, the nations of West Asia have been the biggest losers.

That can only add an extra edge to Thursday's clash in Adelaide which, Al Jaber believes, presents the perfect opportunity for the Saudis to make a statement.

"This Australia team is not the same team that won the final of the Asian Cup in 2015 against South Korea," Al Jaber added.

"If I look at my country and I am dreaming to see my country back at the World Cup, then this is the right time to catch the Australians. This is the time to beat Australia at home and go to the World Cup because they are not an unbeatable team like before.

"It's not a team like before, when you can say it's 70-30, with 70 going to Australia. Now I would say it's 50-50.

"We have the chance, at this time, to say: 'Come on guys, we can do it in Australia and we can prove that Saudi Arabia are different and deserve to go to the World Cup'.

"If we bring three points from an away game in Australia that will bring a lot of confidence and a lot of pride to the team and the people, that we can qualify from Australia. This is the right time because they are not the same team as before."

Editing by Nick Mulvenney

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