The arrival of the Saudi national football team in Germany for the 2006 World Cup marks the start of what is going to be a summer of football mania throughout the Kingdom — and why not? Even in the normal course of events, Saudis are known to be devoted fans of "the beautiful game," avidly following the ups and downs of their favorite teams, whether Ittihad or Shabab, Hilal or Nasr. But the World Cup is different, even though this is certainly not the first time that Saudi Arabia has been in the international competition. The World Cup increases expectations and influences the adrenaline and pride in a way that nothing else can. People are going to be glued to their TV sets in the days that come; every time Saudi Arabia scores a goal, the roar of joy from fans watching at home and in cafes will be heard almost the length and breadth of the Kingdom.
It probably still comes as a bit of a surprise to non-Saudis to be told that the Saudi team has been a regular presence at the World Cup since 1994. That puts it alongside the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany — teams that are the recognized giants of world football. That is itself cause for great pride; there are a number of other great footballing nations that cannot make the same claim: England, France, the Netherlands, Mexico or Paraguay, to mention the more obvious.
Saudi Arabia has every reason to be confident. The team sailed through the qualifying matches, re-establishing its form after the disappointment of the Asian Cup performance two years ago. Under Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta, the team has become a cohesive squad with an attacking style that not only impresses but delivers as well.
That said, none of the other teams in Group H — Spain, Ukraine and Tunisia — will be a walkover. Alarm bells will be ringing after Ukraine's 4-0 defeat of Costa Rica in a friendly match on Sunday. The Tunisians too are going to be on top form. Spain may be an easier proposition, despite making it through to the quarterfinals four years ago; some of their best players have been sidelined by injuries and their disappointing 0-0 draw in the friendly game against Russia on Saturday brought the observation from the Russian coach that although the Spanish players have great technical ability, they lack "a winning mentality." We shall see but be aware at the same time that disappointment because of the draw with Russia will have sharpened the Spaniards' wits and determination.
What this says is that there is no room for complacency on the Saudi team. Every one of its opponents is going to be playing their best in Germany. It is going to be a feast of football. We know that the Saudi players are going to provide thrilling performances that will be the pride, not only of the Kingdom but of the Arab world (not forgetting that Tunisia is playing as well). If they get through to the second round and beyond — and they can — it is going to be a fantastic summer. And it is going to show the world what a great footballing nation Saudi Arabia has become.