|Profiles - World Cup Teams - Saudi Arabia|
Saudi Arabia overcame a miserable start to the qualifiers to seal a place
in the World Cup finals thanks to Bahrain's humbling of regional rival Iran
and a new confidence in homegrown coaching talent.
But a team rated by William Hill least likely to lift the trophy will have to display unusual brio and bravado to make an impact on a gathering of the world's best in South Korea and Japan.
The 250-1 outsiders are determined to match the memorable impact they made in the World Cup in the United States in 1994.
Although knocked out by Sweden in the second round, Saudi Arabia are remembered for one of the greatest goals in the history of the competition when Saeed Owairan dribbled past almost the entire Belgium team from well inside his own half to score a stunning solo effort.
They did not have quite the same impact in France '98, losing to Denmark, eventual world champions France and drawing with South Africa, but on the plus side is the fact this will be their third consecutive appearance in the finals.
It's too early to predict how they will perform in June, but after a hesitant start in the qualifiers the Saudis effectively combined courage and confidence to beat a strong Iran-led opposition in their group to book a direct place in the finals.
'I can't explain the feeling we have right now. Everyone is so happy,' striker Sami al-Jaber said.
'Iran had been lucky before. They should have lost several games that they drew. But we have to thank Bahrain, they have done us a big favour.'
The Saudis eventually needed a stroke of luck to finish top of Group A in the final qualifying round with 17 points from eight matches, two ahead of Iran.
On the final day of the Asian round qualifiers, Bahrain tore the script to pieces, handing a stunning 3-1 defeat to leaders Iran, leaving the Saudis with the easy task of beating bottom-placed Thailand.
This they duly did, their convincing 4-1 margin producing huge sighs of relief in Riyadh.
The Saudis had gone into the match a point behind Iran for the lone qualifying place from their group, but Abdullah Shehan, Abdullah Jamaan, Sami al-Jaber and Ibrahim Mater struck one goal each to seal the victory.
The victory marked a huge turnaround in the fortunes of the Saudis who stuttered miserably early in their campaign when the qualifiers got under way in August.
They drew 1-1 with Bahrain in Riyadh in their opener and then were beaten 2-0 by Iran in Tehran. Stung by the reverses, the Saudi officials immediately fired their Yugoslav coach Slobodan Santrac and replaced him with his Saudi assistant Nasser al-Johar for the second time in a major tournament.
Al-Johar, who took over from Milan Macala at the Asian Cup in Lebanon last year, inspired the Saudis to the Cup finals.
His magic worked again. Under his tutelage, the Saudis won five of the next six World Cup qualifying matches.
'Qualifying for the World Cup for the third consecutive time, under the supervision of a Saudi coach, reaffirms the high standard achieved by Saudi soccer and its excellence at international events,' Prince Sultan bin Fahd, the president of the country's football federation, said of the victory.
The Saudis owe thanks to al-Johar as well for selecting the best team when it mattered most.
The Saudi authorities duly rewarded his efforts by handing him the arduous task of leading the team at the World Cup finals.