(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia make their return to the World Cup finals for the first time since 2006 aiming to recapture the country’s glory days.
The Saudis reached the knockout phase in their first appearance at the tournament in the United States in 1994 when Saeed Owairan’s 80-yard run culminated in a remarkable goal against Belgium that helped take the country into the last 16.
Saudi Arabia’s fortunes at the World Cup have been diminishing ever since, however, with none of their appearances in 1998, 2002 — when they were thrashed 8-1 by Germany — and 2006 seeing them advance beyond the group phase.
The last decade witnessed a marked decline, with the Saudi team failing to make a sustained impact at any level until Bert van Marwijk took over as coach in 2015, with the Dutchman rebuilding confidence and steering them to Russia.
Van Marwijk’s side was built on the foundations of the Riyadh-based Al Hilal club, where Osama Hawsawi is an imposing presence in defence, and Abdullah Otayf controls midfield alongside the creative fulcrum of Salman Al Faraj and Salem Al Dawsari.
None of the squad that qualified for the World Cup finals plays professionally outside Saudi Arabia, with Al Nassr and Al Ahli from the domestic league also contributing key players such as Yahya Al Shehri and Taisir Al Jassim.
But the Dutchman was ousted from his role just days after qualification was sealed when he failed to agree an extension to his contract and he was replaced by Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza.
Bauza, who was fired by Argentina during their difficult qualifying campaign, was sacked by Saudi Arabia after five matches in charge.
He had made a disappointing start to his tenure, losing friendlies to Portugal and Bulgaria in November.
The Saudi football federation said on Wednesday that they were “working on finishing the details with another manager to replace Bauza and lead the national team in the World Cup in Russia.”
Writing by Michael Church in Hong Kong; Editing by John O'Brien