(This story was first published in August 2017)
The number 10 barely looked up. Having received the ball inside his own half he embarked on a solo run that left opposition players flailing in his wake. As he approached the penalty area one lone defender had a chance to take him down; it was not taken. As the goalkeeper committed himself, the striker stroked the ball home.
It’s not the goal you’re thinking of.
On June 29, 1994, Saudi Arabia’s Saeed Al Owairan scored a goal that, while not as aesthetically elegant, was every bit as destructive as Diego Maradona’s famous slalom through the English defence eight years earlier. While hardly ignored, it certainly deserves to be acclaimed far more than it has been over two decades later.
That goal would prove a stunning highlight to Saudi Arabia’s memorable first World Cup participation at USA 94.
Incredibly, one of the finest achievements by a Middle Eastern nation on the grandest football stage came during a period that, in hindsight, looks turbulent and chaotic.
Between 1993 and 1996, Saudi Arabia would employ no less than nine managers. Continuity and stability were seemingly not bywords for the country’s football authorities.
But winning was. Remarkably, through this period of change, consistency on the pitch was achieved. Above all this generation of Saudi players proved to have a gift for conjuring the right results exactly when it mattered, and often under unbearable pressure.
In the First Round, the Saudis topped Group E after four wins and two draws.
The real drama would come in the Final Round group, which included Saudi, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Iraq and Iran, and which was played in Doha between October 15 and 28, 1993.
On the final match day, all bar North Korea still had hopes of qualifying to the finals. Saudi, who had drawn with Japan, Iraq and South Korea, and beaten North Korea, faced Iran; there was a Korea derby, and Japan met Iraq in a match that would go down in infamy.
Saudi were involved in a crazy match against Iran at Khalifa International Stadium, which ended in a 4-3 win to the Green Falcons. They had done their bit. But that was nothing compared to events taking place at Al Ahly Stadium.
Japan led Iraq 2-1 as the match crept into added time, a result that would see them qualify ahead of South Korea who were beating their neighbours 3-0. Then came the sting in the tail. Iraq’s Jaffar Salman scored a last gasp equaliser to leave the Japanese devastated. The match became known as the “Agony of Doha”.
After that incredible finish, the Saudis, along with South Korea, were heading to the USA – to the delight of the host nation who, for political reasons, had been fretting over the possibility of Iran, North Korea or Iraq, qualifying to the finals.
In the US, Saudi were pitted against the Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco. Needless to say, the two Arab nations were expected to be easily eliminated by the two European powerhouses.
The start could not be any tougher for Saudi, who were set to make their World Cup debut against a gifted, if underachieving, Dutch team on June 20 at RFK Stadium in Washington DC.
But the Gulf nation had travelled a long way to be overawed. From a freekick wide on the right, Fuad Anwar connected to give them a shock lead. On the Saudi bench, rightly, there was bedlam.
On 50 minutes the elegant Wim Jonk evoked memories of countryman Arie Haan’s legendary goal against Italy at the 1978 World Cup with a superb long-range strike past Mohamed Al Deayea.
The Dutch were relieved, the Saudis rocking. There could surely be only one winner, and a rush of blood to the head by the Saudi keeper allowed Gaston Taument to head into an open net for 2-1 win to the Netherlands.
The Saudis had more than matched their opponents but were left with no points to show for it.
It meant the all-Arab clash against Morocco on June 25 was a must-win match for both countries, though even victory for either was expected to be nothing more than a matter of bragging rights. Instead it proved the catalyst for an astonishing finale to the group.
At Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Sami Al Jaber was inspired. In the sixth minute, the Al Hilal forward broke into the Moroccan penalty area and was taken down by Noureddine Naybet for a clear penalty. Al Jaber stepped up to put Saudi in front.
Morocco hit back in the 26th minute with a wonderful equaliser. On the left hand touchline, Ahmad Bahja tied Awad Al Anazi in knots, skipped past Fahad Al Bishi inside the area, and from the byline set up Mohammed Chaouch to tap from one yard out; 1-1.
The first period had yet more drama. On the stroke of half-time Anwar stole the ball in midfield and from almost 40 yards sent a wickedly swerving shot towards the centre of the Moroccan goal. It should have been an easy save for Khalil Azmi, but the goalkeeper horribly miscalculated the ball’s flight and managed to only tap it into his own net. Saudi were in the lead again, and they had 45 minutes to protect it.
And protect it they did. At the second time of asking, Saudi Arabia had managed to put three points on the board.
Mathematically, their hopes of progressing to the round of 16 were very much alive, but a win over Belgium, group leaders with a maximum six points, would most likely be needed. It looked a tall order even for this seemingly fearless team.
The match, on June 29, again at RFK Stadium, would go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, in Saudi football history.
It took Al Owairan only five minutes to pull off his near miraculous goal. In the following years many have decreed it a “lucky” goal, thanks to a couple of untidy bounces, though clearly Al Owairan is at every step in control of the ball. A more apt description would be one of the World Cup’s greatest.
Belgium huffed and puffed but couldn’t find a way past the brilliant Al Deayea or his defenders.
Saudi had become the first Gulf country, and only the second Arab one since Morocco in 1986, to progress to the knock out stages. They were joined by the Netherlands, who beat Morocco 2-1; a stunned Belgium went home.
Round of 16
Awaiting Saudi in the round of 16 at the Cotton Bowl was a Sweden team that itself had exceeded expectations with some excellent performances, led by the trio of Tomas Brolin, Kennet Andersson and Martin Dahlin.
The Dallas heat was scorching, the players barely casting shadows in the midday sun. However, the weather conditions would not, as many assumed, help the Saudis.
Dahlin opened the scoring in the fifth minute with a header, and Andersson doubled the lead five minutes into the second half with a shot that Al Deayea should have stopped. Even with almost a whole half left, the game looked up for Saudi.
Yet this was team that refused to be beaten. With five minutes left Fahad Al Ghesheyan scored a spectacular solo goal and suddenly there was a glimmer of hope that a miracle comeback was on the cards.
An equaliser would have raised the intriguing possibility of an-energy-sapping extra time, and the question who could have been the last team, almost literally, standing. Sadly, Saudi’s reprieve lasted only three minutes as their wilting defence allowed Andersson to volley home from outside the six-yard box.
It was a crushing way to lose, but the heroic Saudi players had given everything they had. For Al Jaber, Al Owairan and the rest, USA 94 was an unequivocal success.
Saudi’s 1994 World Cup squad has gone down in folklore. The country has, impressively, gone on to qualify to the World Cup on three further occasions (1998, 2002, 2006), but with decreasing returns and a lot less drama.
Should Saudi return to World Cup next year, it is the Class of 94 the new generation would be looking to emulate.