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Saudi Arabia Returns to World Cup Finals - 2002-05-10

Saudi Arabia is the first Gulf nation to qualify for the World Cup football (soccer) finals for the third consecutive time. But as VOA's Jim Stevenson reports, the team that is considered an Asian soccer powerhouse is still far from being a title contender at this year's World Cup in South Korea and Japan.

Despite finishing its qualifying campaign with only one loss in 14 matches, Saudi Arabia is not expected to improve on its 1998 performance in France, where it was eliminated in the first round after one draw and two defeats.

Saudi Arabia plays in Group E which includes three-time World Cup champion Germany, Ireland and African champion Cameroon. International football commentator Derek Rae says the group competition is likely too difficult for Saudi Arabia.

"The one thing that is in their favor here that I would say could be to their advantage is that they have absolutely nothing to lose," he says. "Nobody is banking on the Saudis qualifying for the second group stage. Everyone is talking about Germany, Ireland and Cameroon, perhaps in that order."

Rae says the Saudi team has not changed much from four years ago.

"In many respects it is the same key players for Saudi Arabia this time as it was last time - goalkeeper Mohammed Al Daeyea, who is shortly I think going to be the most capped player of all time," says Rae. "His cap total stands at about 163 the last time I checked. Sami Al-Jaber is going to be a forceful forward. [Nawaf] Al-Temyat is a useful man to have at midfield. But again, it is the same nucleus that we saw back in 1998 [in France]."

Saudi Arabia is also well known for hiring and firing coaches. During the 2000 Asian Cup and while qualifying for the 2002 World Cup, the Saudis fired two European coaches despite showing a solid performance.

Saudi Arabia's best World Cup finish was 12th place in its first appearance in 1994.