Saturday, May 13, 2006

26: al-Sogour


Where? The Middle East.

How big? Bigger than I thought. It's about the size of Mexico. Population, isn't as big however - and when you exclude non-nationals, it's only about the size of Texas.

Something interesting in the CIA Factbook? While Tunisia has the lowest AIDS rate in Africa, Saudi Arabia's is the lowest in the whole world, or at least that's what is estimated. Also, I didn't know that 1 in every 6 people in the country is a foreigner (over 35% of the working age population!). That seems really high to me.

Geopolitical import? Yeah... 1/5th of the world's oil reserves. Enormous American troop presence. Situated in the most contentious area of the world. Center of the Islamic world. Probably only the US is the only nation in the tournament as important in a geopolitical sense.

Non-nerd fun? OK, this isn't fun, but did you know that slavery wasn't abolished in the Kingdom until 1962? 1962!!! The Stones debuted that year. And there are some who think slavery still exists there today.

Soccer, now.

The tradition of soccer in the Kingdom is a relatively new phenomenon, but a lot of resources have been put into it recently. And it's paid off in come ways. Saudi Arabia first qualified in 1994, but they haven't missed the cup since, qualifying every time. No nation has won the Asian Cup more than the Kingdom's three times, and they've finished second two more times. Since 1984, only one Asian Cup final hasn't featured the "Falcons" (the team is also known as "The Sons of the Desert"). Their performance in the World Cup hasn't been great since their debut in the US in 1994, when they upset Morocco and Belgium to advance to the Round of 16 (where they lost to Sweden). In fact, they may have regressed internationally, suffering their worst international defeat at Korea/Japan to Germany 8-0.

Qualifying wasn't so difficult for Saudi Arabia. In the early preliminaries, they went undefeated. Then in the final group stage they drew away to Uzbekistan and at Kuwait, but won all three at home and at Seoul, clinching first place and a spot in Germany.

The high pay available to professional footballlers in Saudi Arabia (or other Gulf States) means that few players go to Europe to ply their trade. The team is considered one of the more veteran teams, as many of the players have been around for the past few cups, and the most recent Asian Cup disappointment hinted that some of the team is past its prime. One player to keep an eye on is Nawaf Al-Temwat, who was Asian Player of the Year in 2000 but suffered one injury after another until 2004. He might finally be back in form.

The one never to lose sight of is Hamad al-Montashari, the 2005 Asian Player of the Year. He's young and strong in defense. He's a stalwart on Al-Ittihad, one of the best teams in the Kingdom, historically.

I predict an experience in this cup pretty similar to Tunisia's.

The opener is a 2-2 draw, with both teams able to score, but neither able to separate themselves.

Saudi Arabia is kind of disappointed (at least more than Tunisia) in the opening result. They come out and slow things down against Ukraine, but Ukraine scores twice late. A 2-0 loss.

At that point, things don't look good for Saudi Arabia, and this is in some ways their last chance with many of these players. Disappointment hurts them, as Spain routs, 2-0.

A disappointment, probably, but the Saudi team heads home with only one point, 2 goals, and a -4 goal differential.

If this were March Madness, the Saudis would be... A decent Conference USA team, with some good veterans and a couple of pretty good freshmen, but who just can't put it together. I'm thinking St. Louis.

The Saudis won't have good luck. Kind of like having a broken down jeep in the Rub 'al-khali.