Saudi Arabia poised to make waves, and not just because of Newcastle's new owners

Saudi Arabia are currently the only side remaining in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with a perfect record of four wins, following Tuesday's 3-2 victory over China PR. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Saudi Arabia, not known as a major player in global football, made news this month when a consortium backed by the state became the majority shareholder of Premier League outfit Newcastle.

And like when consortiums from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates took over Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, questions arose over what the move means for the European football landscape. While the football world has been scrutinizing the move, Saudi Arabia's success on the pitch has often been overlooked.

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Four matches into the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia are firmly on course for an automatic berth at next year's tournament. They are the only team to boast a perfect record and comfortably sit atop Group B.

Football has long been the most popular sport in Saudi Arabia and the national team is one of Asia's traditional heavyweights -- even if they have yet to make a mark on a global scale.

The Green Falcons were the first Asian team to reach the knockout round at a World Cup in 1994, which was the first of four consecutive appearances on football's biggest stage.

What followed was years of mediocrity as they missed out in 2010 and 2014, before returning at the most recent edition -- where they claimed an impressive 2-1 win over a Mohamed Salah-led Egypt outfit.

While Japan, South Korea and Iran have in recent times emerged as the standard bearers in Asia, Saudi Arabia have quietly gone about their way in making the best start of the final 12 teams in Asia's qualifiers for Qatar 2022.

Unlike their counterparts that boast Europe-based standouts such as Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) and Sardar Azmoun (Zenit St. Petersburg), Saudi Arabia's squad is based in the domestic Saudi Professional League -- although Salem Al-Dawsari and Fahad Al-Muwallad do have experience in LaLiga with Villarreal and Levante respectively.

Their recent improvement stems from a renewed focus on youth, and the first signs of the initiative paying off came in 2018 when the Green Falcons were crowned champions of the AFC U-19 Championship.

Two years later, they came close to further glory after finishing as runners-up at the AFC U-23 Championship, which earned them a spot at this year's Summer Olympics football tournament.

A significant number of youngsters from those age-group teams now feature prominently for the senior team, with Firas Al-Buraikan and Sami Al-Najei two of Saudi Arabia's joint-top scorers in the third round of Asian World Cup qualifiers so far, while defender Abdulelah Al-Amri and attacker Abdulrahman Ghareeb are firmly entrenched in coach Herve Renard's setup.

A lack of exposure to top overseas competition is alleviated by a solid domestic club scene. The Pro League sides regularly battle among Asia's elite in the AFC Champions League and are happy to spend big to bring in quality imports -- which in turn allows the local-based contingent to learn from foreign signings who do boast that European experience.

Al Hilal have arguably been the standouts with their 2019 ACL-winning side boasting ex-Lyon and France spearhead Bafetimbi Gomis as well as former Juventus wonderkind Sebastian Giovinco, while recognisable names like Ever Banega, Odion Ighalo, Eder and Ramiro Funes Mori are all currently plying their trade for Saudi Arabian teams.

Despite Saudi Arabian football's evident rise, the Green Falcons still have work to do before booking their spot at next year's World Cup. Even if they get there, it might also be too much too soon to expect them to cause a real surprise and advance deep into the competition.

Saudi Arabia is on the right track to making waves and getting onlookers to notice. And not just because a few of their own now control an European football club.