The Saudi Arabian team were unbeaten in their six qualifying games to top their group ahead of South Korea. This summer we will see the team compete at its fourth World Cup in a row. As Fares Youwakim reports, that's not bad for a nation where football was once forbidden
The Saudi Arabian royal family lifted its ban on football in 1951. But the beautiful game only really took off in the kingdom in the early 1980s, when oil revenues were used to build modern stadiums, as well as hospitals, schools and highways.
The late King Fahd was one of the first Saudi leaders to promote football in the kingdom, which now boasts a league of 12 professional clubs.
The teams are organised along similar lines to European clubs, with a number of imported players and coaches, but there are differences. In Saudi Arabia there are no sponsors, and television viewing rights aren't enough to finance the football league. Saad El Sabi'i heads the sports department of the Al-Watan daily newspaper. He explains how Saudi clubs make ends meet:
"When we started bringing in foreign staff, costs went up as the clubs competed to attract the best coaches and star players. The clubs can't afford to do that using only the budgets allocated by official youth and sport programs. So they rely on honorary members, billionaire princes and businessmen for additional support."
Impressing the princes
Another difference between the European and Saudi leagues is the pay structure. The average salary of a professional player in Saudi Arabia is only about 2,000 euros a month. The reason is not tax evasion – there is no income tax in Saudi Arabia. It's just that tradition dictates a sportsman shouldn't earn as much as a university professor.
It's something that clubs get around, once again, with the help of their honorary members. The billionaire fans attract top players to their clubs by rewarding good performances with substantial cash premiums. Sports journalist Saad El Sabi'i says the same goes for the national team.
"The Saudi squad normally receives large premiums for making it to the next stage of a tournament," El Sabi'i explains. "Each player will receive at least $150,000 if the team survives the first round of the World Cup."
But that figure is only an estimate. The actual amount paid depends on how much the Saudi Arabian team impresses the nation's princes and billionaires.
© Deutsche Welle 2006