SAUDI ARABIA WERE the kings of Asian football during the 1980s. Back to back Asian Cups in 1984 and 1988 cemented their dominance. However, despite such regional supremacy, the Green Falcons had never been to a World Cup. There were, however, mitigating circumstances, as the Saudis weren’t affiliated with FIFA until 1956. At the same time, the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) was founded by Abdullah bin Faisal Al Saud, nephew to King Saud. They didn’t join the Asian Football Confederation until 1972 either, so couldn’t enter World Cup qualification until 1976.
The Saudis were disappointing when they finally competed in the World Cup qualifiers. The Green Falcons could not reach the 1978 to 1990 World Cups, struggling to replicate their performances in the Asian Cup. There was immense frustration among Saudi fans and officials at these failures, but as the 1994 World Cup qualifiers neared, frustration turned into optimism. A number of reasons lay behind this newly-discovered hope in the SAFF.
Firstly, the Green Falcons in the early 1990s had a talented group of young players, which recently broke into the national squad. They could bring renewed vigour and strengthen the veterans that were so successful in the 1980s. Importantly, these youngsters covered several positions, with many under the age of 24 in 1993. They included goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea, defenders Mohammed Al-Khilaiwi and Ahmed Jamil Madani, midfielders Fuad Anwar and Khalid Al-Muwallid, as well as striker Sami Al-Jaber.
Secondly, the veterans of the squad had enough quality to complement the intake of youngsters. Players such as Mohammed Al-Jawad, Fahad Al Bishi and Majed Abdullah had been instrumental in winning the Asian Cup. The national team had also been well funded by the kingdom, with several of the royal family ardent football fans. In the 1970s, King Faisal famously recruited Jimmy Hill to develop football in the country, Hill given a budget of nearly $50m. The royal family wanted one thing from their generous funding – World Cup qualification. It was hoped Cândido, a Brazilian who coached the national team, could do this.
The Green Falcons easily navigated the first group stage of World Cup qualifying and finished top of their group ahead of Kuwait, Malaysia and Macau. But the second stage would contain tougher opposition and a unique format. The group consisted of six teams that played each other once. The matches would be contested in a short space of time – less than two weeks. Furthermore, all the games would be played in Qatar. The six teams in the group were Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. A win was worth two points and only the top two would qualify for the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia’s first game was on 15 October against the reigning Asian Cup champions Japan. The two best teams more or less cancelled each other out in a goalless draw. Three days later, the Saudis would unconvincingly beat North Korea 2-1. Four days later, the Green Falcons were lucky to nick a 1-1 draw against South Korea, equalising deep into injury time.
All six teams still had a chance of qualifying with two games remaining. South Korea, along with Saudi Arabia, occupied the qualifying spots on four points each. Japan were in third place with three points. Iraq had the same number of points as the Japanese but were fourth due to an inferior goal difference. Both Iran and North Korea propped up the rear on two points. The Saudis’ final two games were against Iraq and Iran.
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Things didn’t start well against Iraq as Saudi conceded within a minute, Iraq’s Ahmed Radhi taking advantage of hesitant Saudi defending. But the Green Falcons fought back and scored thanks to Saeed Al Owairan. Saudi Arabia’s Khalid Al-Muwallid blazed a penalty over the bar to miss out on the win, but that was superseded by drama. Cândido substituted goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Deayea during the match, even though he wasn’t injured. It was a bizarre decision as the game ended 1-1.
Cândido resigned as manager and left the next day. It later transpired he left because of his anger at being ordered by one of the Saudi princes to replace Al-Deayea. It wasn’t the first time Arab royalty had interfered in football affairs, as Kuwait demonstrated at the 1982 World Cup. Five assistants left with Cândido, which meant his interim replacement was Mohammed Al-Khrashe, coach of the Saudi under-16’s.
Five teams could still qualify with one game left. Japan and Saudi Arabia each had six points, while South Korea, Iraq and Iran had four points each. Already eliminated North Korea were bottom on two points. The last round of matches were to be played simultaneously across three stadiums in Doha. Saudi Arabia played Iran, South Korea faced North Korea, and Japan played Iraq.
Despite their off-field troubles, Saudi Arabia made a blistering start, going 2-0 up thanks to Al-Jaber and Fahid Al-Mehallel. The stunned Iranians pulled a goal back before half-time through Mehdi Fonounizadeh but Saudi midfielder Mansour Al-Mousa restored their two-goal lead on 47 minutes. Fonounizadeh, however, was on a solo mission to keep Iran in the game. He made it 3-2 just five minutes after Al-Mousa scored. Striker Hamza Idris Falatah allayed Saudi nerves by making it 4-2 as they celebrated wildly. Javad Manadi pulled a goal back for Iran in stoppage time but it was a mere consolation. Players, as well as fans in the stadium, wept and sung with joy at reaching the World Cup for the first time.
As a reward for qualifying, the Saudis all received 100,000 riyals – roughly $41,000 in today’s money. However, off-field difficulties would resurface, especially in the months leading up to the finals. Veteran Leo Beenhakker was appointed as manager of the side in November 1993 but would last just three months. The SAAF’s explanation was that the team found it difficult to adapt to Beenhakker’s tactics.
Beenhakker’s replacement was Jorge Solari, but the manner of his appointment in March 1994 was unorthodox. King Faud had sought the advice of fellow football fan Carlos Menem, the president of Argentina. Menem had recommended Solari, but though he was successful in South America for various clubs, he had never managed an international side before.
SPIRIT OF THE FALCONS
Saudi Arabia were drawn in Group F with Morocco, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Moroccans had several players in France’s top flight, including Mustapha Hadji and Noureddine Naybet. The Belgians had a wealth of experience in their squad, and a number were part of the famous 1986 World Cup squad that reached the semi-finals.
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The Dutch had an abundance of world-class talent under the stewardship of manager Dick Advocaat. The names read out like a who’s who of football players in the 1990s: skipper Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, his brother Ronald, Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars to name but a few.
Saudi Arabia’s World Cup debut started against the star-studded Dutch in Washington on 20 June. The Green Falcons were put under pressure during the first 15 minutes but the Saudis withstood Holland’s probing attacks. Their stout defence was rewarded by winning a free-kick in a good position on 18 minutes. It was just outside the penalty area on the right. Fahad Al-Bishi whipped the ball into the box and Fuad Anwar slipped past Koeman. The midfielder then magnificently guided his header into the bottom corner past Ed de Goey.
The Netherlands were stunned at going behind against the run of play – this wasn’t in the script. Dutch possession yielded few chances, much to their anger The untroubled Saudis were ahead at half-time, but the Dutch started the second half with a vengeance. Wim Jonk levelled the scores after his 25-yard thunderbolt swerved away from Al-Deayea. Holland intensified their efforts to find a winner, but Saudi doggedness and spirit held them at bay.
Al-Deayea luck ran out with four minutes of normal time remaining after he had spent the game rushing off his line to thwart attacks. Frank de Boer launched a hopeful ball into the box that barely reached the area. Al-Deayea wildly charged out from his line to try and punch it away. He ended up missing the ball completely as it bounced into the air. Dutch substitute Gaston Taument reacted quickest to head the ball into the empty net.
The Falcons may have lost their opening game but there were reasons to be hopeful as they went toe to toe with one of Europe’s best teams and deserved a point. The Saudis’ next game against Morocco was now of paramount importance to both teams. The Moroccans narrowly lost 1-0 to Belgium, which meant defeat for either side resulted in certain elimination.
The Saudis enjoyed the perfect start against Morocco at Giants Stadium, New York. They won a penalty that Al-Jaber converted, but the Moroccans fought back and capitalised midway through the first half. A hopeful long ball by Morocco was contested by Saudi Arabia’s Awad Al-Anazi and Morocco’s Ahmed Bahja. Al-Anazi followed Bahja to the touchline.
As the Moroccan kept the ball in, Al-Anazi launched a two-footed tackle, attempting to rattle his opponent. Quick as a flash, Bahja sidestepped his marker and was now free to run into the box. He then cut inside to wrong-foot Ahmed Madani, drawing out Al-Deayea as the Moroccan approached the edge of the six-yard box. Bahja then crossed for his fellow striker Mohammed Chaouch to score.
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The rest of the first half was a scrappy affair that was punctuated by fouls. However, just before half-time, the Moroccans shot themselves in the foot. Under no pressure in their own half, one of the Moroccan defenders mishit his pass, which allowed Fuad Anwar to win back possession. Anwar cantered into Morocco’s half and tried to score from nearly 30 yards out. The ball swerved wildly and caused Morocco’s goalkeeper, Khalil Azmi, to read its flight. The captain tried to adjust but it was too late. Saudi Arabia held on to win their first World Cup match.
They had added reason to celebrate as Belgium beat the Netherlands 1-0 earlier that day. The Belgians now topped the group with six points, and both Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands were on three points. The format of the group stages meant the top two in each group progressed to the last 16, as did the top four teams from the six that finished third. Defeat for Saudi Arabia in their final group game against Belgium would spell elimination from the tournament. The Belgians were undefeated so far in the World Cup and their defence hadn’t even conceded a goal.
A HERO ARISES
Saudi Arabia would score just five minutes in, Saeed Al-Owairan cementing himself as a new national hero. The challenge for the Saudis was to maintain their slender lead for the rest of the game. Belgium controlled possession but their pressure yielded few chances. The Belgians stepped up the tempo in the second half but it made them susceptible to counter-attacks. They very nearly paid the price.
Michel De Wolf launched a hopeful ball into the Saudi box that was easily cleared by the defence. The clearance fortuitously reached Hamza Idris Falatah on the halfway line. The Belgian defence were disorganised and the young Saudi forward easily outpaced Smidts. His speed carried him into the penalty area and, with only Michael Preud’homme to beat, his shot clipped the woodwork.
The Saudis held on for a famous victory and qualified for the knockout stages. More importantly for the future, a new star had been born in Al-Owairan.
Reaching the knockout stages had been unexpected and the Saudis were determined to make the most of it. Their opponents in the last 16 would be Sweden. The Scandinavians had a formidable and experienced squad, boasting a number of players in Europe’s top leagues.
The two teams faced each other at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on 3 July. The Saudis felt heartened at their battling performances against strong European opposition in Belgium and Holland, but the Swedes were different. Kennet Anderson whipped in a pinpoint cross from the left that bisected the Saudi defenders. Martin Dahlin was one step ahead of his marker and effortlessly directed his header past Al-Deayea. Simple, effective and, in a flash, the Saudis were 1-0 down.
Sweden, however, became cautious. Sitting on a lead allowed them to dare the Saudis to break down their defence. Their early goal also forced the Saudis to do most of the chasing in the heat, which caused them to tire. It led to the Swedes increasing the tempo at the start of the second half and landing the fatal blow on 51 minutes. Weak Saudi defending allowed Anderson to rifle in a low shot from outside the box into the bottom corner. Two goals down, and with most of the second half remaining, it seemed like mission impossible for the Green Falcons.
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It prompted Solari to go for broke. He took off skipper Mohammed Al-Jawad and put on 20-year-old winger Fahad Al-Ghashiyan. Solari then put on attack-minded midfielder Khalid Al-Muwallid. The changes revitalised Saudi Arabia and exerted pressure on Sweden. They won several corners, as well as creating half chances, but the Swedish defence held firm until the 85th minute.
Al-Jaber played a ball over the top for Al-Ghashiyan who reached the edge of Sweden’s box. His first touch controlled the ball, and he cut inside with his second. His marker was left for dead and Al-Ghashiyan was in acres of space. Showing great composure, he smashed a fierce drive past Thomas Ravelli into the roof of the net. Any hope of a comeback was dashed a few minutes later when Anderson made it 3-1. It was the final nail in the coffin for Saudi Arabia as they bowed out of the World Cup.
FROM HERO TO PRISON
Instead of despair, there was a sense of pride at what the Saudis achieved. The players had defied the odds to reach the knockout stages. Some had predicted they would finish bottom of their group. The national team were welcomed home as heroes and rewarded for their performances. None were so lavishly rewarded as Saeed Al-Owairan. King Faud gave him a luxury car and he duly won the Asian Footballer of the Year award. European clubs were also interested in the midfielder but Al-Owairan couldn’t leave because of a law prohibiting Saudi footballers from playing abroad.
Sadly for Al-Owairan, that would be as good as it got. After taking two weeks off for a holiday without his club’s permission, he was fined and warned about future behaviour. In early 1996, Al-Owairan would flout those warnings, which brought about severe ramifications. He was caught drinking in a Saudi nightclub – made worse by the fact it was the holy month of Ramadan. With Al-Owairan committing such a serious offence in a deeply conservative society, the SAFF did not hold back in their punishment. He was banned from football for a year and put in a detention centre.
His year-long ban led to his omission from Saudi Arabia’s 1996 Asian Cup squad. To add further insult to injury, the Green Falcons won the tournament by defeating the UAE on penalties. Unfortunately for Al-Owairan, his career never recovered after his many off-field mistakes. He was selected for Saudi Arabia’s 1998 World Cup squad but only played twice. He learned the hard way that fame may be attainable but the real test is maintaining it for the right reasons.
Jorge Solari left as Saudi Arabia manager after the World Cup. The national team went through several coaches over the next 12 years. Paradoxically, they qualified for the next three World Cups. Unfortunately, in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 editions, they were eliminated in the group stages and failed to win a single game. Their record from those nine World Cup games is grim: no wins, two draws and seven defeats.
These failures explain why Saudi Arabia’s exploits in 1994 should be remembered. Some felt the debutants were there to make up the numbers but that proved to be lazy thinking. The players under Solari overcame the odds to win respect and prestige in world football as the Green Falcons created their own American dream.