The first and last time Saudi Arabia progressed from the group phase at the FIFA World Cup was in 1994, when they won two games and made it until the Round of 16, where they were eliminated by Sweden.
Since then, the Asian side won a single game from the past 12 they played, never finishing better than 26th place and 35 goals, an average of almost three goals per match in the world flagship football competition.
But when they start their campaign at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first ever to be played in the Middle East, their ambitions will be high. Not only they want to showcase themselves on the biggest of stages, they will also aim to progress to the knockout phase for the first time in 28 years.
They were definitely handed a tough draw, with title hopefuls Argentina, European side Poland and Mexico as their opponents in the group phase. Yet Herve Renard’s side is definitely one that can provide some strong challenges in any game.
And their hopes rely heavily on winger Salem Al-Dawsari, the enfant terrible of the Saudi football, who at 31 years old is now currently in his prime. With 17 goals scored in his international career, he is the top scorer of the current roster assembled for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as his 70 caps also make him the second most experienced player in the team.
But who is Al-Dawsari?
In 2022, he was named among the top 10 Asian players by the FourFourTwo magazine, in the buildup to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. His electrifying pace, dribbling skills and creativity in front of the goal is next to none.
He was also decisive for his club, Al-Hilal, winning four domestic titles, three Saudi Super Cups, three Crown Prince Cups and the AFC Asian Champions League twice, in 2019 and 2021, being an integrant part of the Saudi club’s resurgence in international football.
Al-Dawsari was also named in the IFFHS AFC Men’s Team of the Decade 2011-2020 and was also the MVP of the AFC Asian Champions League in 2021, being the player with the largest number of completed dribbles in the competition.
His performances made his teammate from Al-Hilal, Bafetimbi Gomis, to dub Al-Dawsari as the best Asian player on display right now and it was hard to argue that Gomis is only a teammate when the winger was so crucial to Hilal’s success.
Yet why does a player with such potential, revered in his country, did not manage to break through the ranks in more tough leagues?
The 31-year-old winger is a one-man club, featuring for Al-Hilal since 2011, when he made his debut as a senior player, but also dipped his toes into European football in 2018.
Loaned by Spanish club Villarreal, in a deal made by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and the La Liga team, Al-Dawsari made a single appearance in the Spanish league, against Real Madrid, and got back to Al-Hilal after a few months.
His move to Europe was just a culmination of the development of a very talented player, albeit a loose cannon at times, who was suspended for six matches in 2015 after chasing down and headbutting a referee during a league game.
More mature, confident in his abilities, and aware of his talent, Al-Dawsari finally appeared on the world stage in 2018, when he scored the decisive goal in Saudi Arabia’s win against Egypt at the FIFA World Cup in Russia.
But now, in his prime, Al-Dawsari will surely be the leader of the Saudi Arabia team led by Herve Renard at Qatar 2022. He has the experience, the quality, and the talent to write a new page of history for his side in the competition.
He is a tantalizing prospect, with plenty of ability and nous to make the Saudi side a force to be reckoned with, even the opponents in the group phase have more experience, play at better clubs and, in general, are the favourites.
With football the most popular sport by far in Saudi Arabia, the performances will definitely be watched through a magnifying glass, especially as the tournament is hosted by a rival in the region.
His legacy is almost set, winning everything there is to win in club competitions, with the two AFC Asian Champions League trophies making him one of the most decorated Saudi players in history.