Giants face off on long road to South Africa

They love to beat each other, do Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is a bitter rivalry and will reach new heights when they meet in a crucial 2010 World Cup qualifier in Tehran on Saturday. 

The two are genuine continental powerhouses; Persian and Arabian giants in close proximity in West Asia.

Europeans may remember a certain 8-0 defeat in Sapparo at the 2002 World Cup. That result is hardly forgotten in Asia either, it will loom large over Saudi Arabian history for decades to come.

But on this continent the Saudis are better known for four consecutive World Cup appearances since 1994, a second round place in the USA and three Asian Cups.

Saudis and Iranians battle for the ball - and qualification

Iran are no slouches either, having appeared on the global stage three times, and match their bitter rivals when it comes to continental titles.

Whichever one loses on Saturday is going to be in serious danger of missing out on South Africa, especially if it's Saudi Arabia.

At the halfway stage of Group Two, the Sons of the Desert are in fourth with four points, Iran being one place and two points better off.

Only the top two (spots currently held by South and North Korea) automatically qualify, with third having to negotiate two play-off opponents – the first of which will be Asian, the second New Zealand. 

The Saudis started well enough with a draw at home to Iran and then a come-from-behind 2-1 win at a struggling UAE. But since then it's all gone wrong.

South Korea won 2-0 at the King Fahd International Stadium in November in a game that could have gone either way. The following visit to North Korea brought a well-deserved 1-0 defeat.

That caused the resignation of Nasser Al Johar, who had also presided over that game with Germany in a previous spell. As it was the 20th coaching change since 1994, he jumped before he was pushed. There are few seats hotter than the one in Riyadh.

The new man is Jose Peseiro. The Portuguese boss has experience in the region with giants Al-Hilal. Ahead of his first competitive match, he has not had much luck.

Star player and 2007 Asian Player of the Year Yasser Al Qahtani was already suspended for the Iran match but was ready and willing for the UAE clash four days later. However, he has now been thrown off the team.

The official reason was that Al Qahtani failed to report for training on Tuesday. The nub of the matter is why he was absent, with some spinning fantastic tales of wild parties. Whatever, he's out of the picture.

"The coach has decided against including Yasser Al Qahtani after he missed the training and didn't reply to repeated phone calls," Saudi team manager Fahed Al Musebeih was quoted saying in a report posted Wednesday on the Asian Football Confederation's website.

It sparked debates regarding the discipline of Arabian players, a problem that many feel is the one thing holding the region back.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with a member of the Saudi coaching staff at the 2007 Asian Cup. He was dismissive of many of the players, saying that they simply lacked the hunger to succeed.

He was proven wrong in the short term as the team made it to the Asian Cup final, playing some good stuff before losing to Iraq.

"I'll sit this one out, shall I?"

But overall? Perhaps Saudi stars don't usually venture outside the Kingdom's borders – hardly surprising when they are paid well, tax-free. But this lack of overseas experience doesnt help the national team.

According to reports in the English press, Al Qahtani did little to dispel images of spoiled Saudi stars when he visited Manchester City for a trial in 2008.

The Sniper was said to have arrived at Eastlands like some Arabian prince with his hangers-on and then took exception to a rough tackle from Richard Dunne (some, perhaps more imaginative, reports claimed that he burst into tears).

Whatever happened, he was soon on his way home.

But maybe this latest episode will be the straw that breaks the camel's back and The Sniper will finally bite the bullet and choose an overseas target. By the time he does however, Saudi Arabia's World Cup dreams could be over.

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