Roberto Mancini and Saudi Arabia begin World Cup 2026 quest with one eye on future

Green Falcons' bid to reach next global finals kicks off with match against Pakistan on Thursday

Roberto Mancini's Saudi Arabia side face Pakistan in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday. AFP
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Nearly two-and-a-half years before the first 48-team Fifa World Cup kicks off in the United States, Mexico and Canada, Saudi Arabia start their journey to find out if they can make it three appearances in a row at the global finals.

The opening fixture of their Asian qualifying second round at home against Pakistan on Thursday marks the first stage of the two-year adventure, with two matches each against Group G opponents Pakistan, Jordan and Tajikistan taking them through to June 2024.

The top two teams will book their place in the third round, where Asia’s top 18 sides will compete for eight spots at the 2026 finals. A ninth team also takes part in the inter-confederation play-off which offers a further place.

Heading into the first stage, manager Roberto Mancini has been joined by his new assistant and former player at Manchester City, Yaya Toure. The former Ivory Coast captain and Mancini had embarked on multiple journeys to Saudi Pro League stadiums to identify new talent for the Green Falcons’ set-up.

In doing so, Mancini and Toure have kept an eye on the long term, with some of the names, notably the inclusion of 16-year-old forward Talal Haji, an early step towards building the core of the team that is set to compete in the 2034 World Cup on home soil, with Saudi Arabia the sole candidate for the competition’s hosting rights.

Besides Al Ittihad's Haji, the latest squad also features teenagers Abbas Al Hassan, a winger who has impressed for Al Fateh, and Hamed Youssef, the backup goalkeeper at Al Shabab. There is also no shortage of players born after 2000, with the likes of Abdullah Radif (20) at Al Shabab, Al Taawoun's Muath Faqihi (21) and Faisal Al Ghamdi (22) of Al Ittihad out to stake their claim as mainstays of the national team.

That excitement was on full display on the streets of Al Ahsa in the east of the country, as hundreds of fans lined up to welcome the national team as it set up camp in the oasis city before their opening match at the newly opened Al Fateh Club Stadium.

For all the optimism, there was still the inevitable criticism of the manager’s choices, as is often the case ahead of every international window.

Prominent among the surprise exclusions is Al Ahli forward Firas Al Buraikan. The 23-year-old was the SPL’s highest scoring Saudi player last season with 18 goals, and already has six this season; only recently anointed Asian Player of the Year Salem Al Dawsari (seven) has more.

In what can be yet another sign of focusing on the future, 29-year-old right-back Sultan Al Ghannam missed out on the squad, with Saud Abdulhamid of Al Hilal and Al Taawoun's Waleed Al Ahmed, both 24, preferred in his position.

Likewise, Saleh Al Abbas’ five goals for Al Riyadh this season could not earn him a spot in Mancini's squad, with the 29-year-old omitted in favour of Radif, Haji and Al Nassr's Mohammed Marran, all under the age of 23.

With the prospect of the World Cup coming to Asia for the third time, Saudi fans will be dreaming of seeing their team surpass the achievements of South Korea, joint-hosts alongside Japan for the 2002 World Cup, in going beyond the semi-finals.

The journey of a thousand miles, or 11 years in Saudi Arabia’s case, begins with a single step against 193rd ranked Pakistan on Thursday.

Updated: November 15, 2023, 2:49 AM