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Saudi looking to erase 2002 memories

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india Updated: May 10, 2006 16:26 IST

Saudi Arabia will be looking at the World Cup in Germany as a chance to redeem its reputation as an Asian soccer powerhouse.

After impressing at previous tournaments, the Falcons were thrashed 8-0 by Germany at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan and exited the first round without a point or goal in three matches.

This year's tournament will be the fourth in a row for the Saudis, who will be seeking to emulate the outstanding performance of the 1994 team, which reached the second round and received plaudits for its flowing, attacking soccer.

"What happened in Korea and Japan will be avoided. The team will be very well prepared for Germany," Saudi soccer federation chief Sultan bin Fahd said.

After securing qualification six months before the start of the tournament, Argentine coach Gabriel Calderon was fired and replaced with Marcos Paqueta, a Brazilian.

Ranked 34th by FIFA, Saudi Arabia finished first and unbeaten in its Asian qualifying group _ ahead of 2002 semifinalist South Korea, with one goal conceded.

Since then, the Saudis have suffered as Paqueta experimented with the roster. The team has drawn three games and lost three, scoring six times and conceding 11.

Paqueta's job is one of the most insecure in soccer, making him subject to the orders of high-demanding Saudi officials. While March's 2-1 loss to Poland won't have helped, Paqueta was determined to take positives from the game.

"The game was good from our side, and we exceeded the Polish in some aspects as we had better cooperation between players," he said. "In the second half, with change of players, the team lost its energy."

The 47-year-old Paqueta is the only manager to be a world champion twice in the same year, achieving the feat as coach of Brazil's under-17 and under-20 squads in 2003.

Still, Saudi officials are optimistic of the team's chances of advancing from Group H, calling Ukraine a newcomer and Tunisia a beatable rival. They rate Spain the only real threat to their progress.

The team has both experience and youth and can count on captain Sami al-Jaber and goalkeeper Mohammed al-Deayea, the world's most capped international player.

Young talent Yasser Al Qahtani, the country's most expensive player at US$10 million (euro7.94 million), and Asian player of the Year Hamad al-Montashari are also expected to impress. Saudi has scheduled friendlies with Belgium, Togo, the Czech Republic and Romania ahead of its opening World Cup match against Tunisia on June 14.

For a country where soccer was banned by the royal family until 1951, the Saudis have made huge progress but will need to prove that the 2002 World Cup campaign was an exception, not the rule.