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When Saudi Arabia hosted Batistuta, Caniggia and Co.

Batistuta scored twice at the 1992 tournament. (AP)
The Argentina side that won the first King Fahd Cup. (AFP)
LONDON: Twenty-five years ago this week, over the course of five muggy days in October 1992, a collection of some of the globe’s leading players turned out for their countries in territory familiar to neither them nor the international footballing community.
It was in Saudi Arabia, long before the prospect of a World Cup in Qatar, that the seeds for a FIFA competition with roots in the Arabian Gulf were sown.
The inaugural King Fahd Cup was held in Riyadh and featured the champions of four continents. Argentina, as winners of the 1991 Copa America, represented South America; Ivory Coast and the USA had won the African Cup of Nations and the CONCACAF Gold Cup to secure their respective berths; and Saudi Arabia, as well as being hosts and chief financiers, were also reigning champions of Asia, having won the 1988 Asian Cup.
The tournament would later be absorbed by the sport’s global governing body, expanded, rebranded and taken around the world. Nowadays, the FIFA Confederations Cup is held every four years, acting as a reconnaissance 12 months before the organization’s flagship World Cup. But back in 1992 it was simply a $3 million exhibition tournament.
Each of the teams brought strong squads, with Argentina including the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Claudio Caniggia and Diego Simeone, and Ivory Coast featuring Serge Maguy, who would later go on to play for Atletico Madrid. It was the first time many of the players involved had traveled to the Gulf, let alone the Kingdom.
“I really wasn’t aware of where Saudi Arabia was back in 1992, but we got on a plane and we made it there,” recalled Brian Quinn, a midfielder with the US national team.
“It was a long, long trip and because of our body clocks, I remember we would be up until 4am playing soccer-tennis.”
Ballroom brilliance
It was not only malfunctioning body clocks that caused havoc. A shamal swirling up sand and sediment turned Riyadh into a dustbowl, forcing US coach Bora Milutinovic — who famously went on to lead five different teams at World Cup finals and coached Iraq at the 2009 Confederations Cup — to create a novel indoor training facility.
“We were in the hotel and were supposed to go out and train,” Marcelo Balboa, an Argentine-American, told Arab News. “There was this huge sandstorm, like something you would see in the movies, so Bora decided he was going to go find us a room instead. We ended up training in this big hotel ballroom until the storm passed. It was certainly a unique experience.”
The off-field episodes did not end there. As well as a desert safari complete with camel rides and dune buggies, a lavish pre-tournament banquet was held, affording the visiting teams opportunity to network while also being introduced to traditional Middle East staples such as hummus, tabouleh and — memorably for Quinn — a rice dish complete with a goat’s head.
“We were also fortunate enough to get the chance to go out and walk around in Riyadh,” Balboa said.
“It was our first time to Saudi Arabia and it was a huge reality check — so different to what we were used to as kids. It really was an experience of a lifetime to see that sort of culture.”
Quinn added: “To get to go to a place that many Americans probably hadn’t heard of and to get the opportunity to possibly play Argentina in the final was a real incentive.”
Super Stadium
Quinn and Co. never faced Argentina in Riyadh. While the South Americans comfortably beat Ivory Coast 4-0, their North American counterparts capitulated inside an intimidating 70,000-capacity King Fahd International Stadium. The hosts ran out 3-0 winners through a Fahad Al-Bishi penalty and late strikes from Youssef Al-Tunayan and Khaled Al-Muwallid. Quinn was dismissed for the first and only time of his international career.
“It was probably the best stadium I ever played in; a stadium ahead of its time,” Quinn said.
“I remember the crowd: Everybody was wearing the traditional white robes and they all just looked so, so clean. It seemed like you were enveloped in a sea of white.
“I had no background to gauge what had gone on in Saudi Arabia before, but it wasn’t a hostile environment and they weren’t mean-spirited at all.”
The US recovered from their defeat to beat Ivory Coast 5-2 in the third-place play-off, with an inspired Balboa opening the scoring with a powerful header.
In the final, favorites Argentina beat Saudi Arabia 3-1, courtesy of goals from Leonardo Rodriguez, Caniggia and Simeone.
Saudi Arabia would go on to host the tournament again in 1995, but by the time it returned two years later, the country’s hosting rights had been relinquished to FIFA. The governing body took it to Mexico in 1999, where the Green Falcons beat Egypt 5-1 on route to the semifinals, however a humbling 8-2 loss to Brazil in the final-four was followed by a 2-0 defeat to the USA.
“In the early 1990s, nobody really knew what the King Fahd Cup was about because it was a new tournament, but I remember going to Mexico in 1999 for what, by then, was the Confederations Cup,” said Balboa. “At that point you could see it was growing into something else — more teams, more prestige — and we were desperate to be involved.”
Twenty-five years on, that enthusiasm has plateaued, if not waned. Before this summer’s event in Russia, FIFA president Gianni Infantino warned it could be the last. Antipathy from non-competing nations, sluggish ticket sales, and the complex logistics of hosting an event in December 2021, exactly one year ahead of the controversial Qatari World Cup, means it might be easier to simply draw a close to the first FIFA competition with roots in the Arab world.