DUBAI: For three minutes, Saudi Arabia’s footballers and supporters were allowed to dream of a miracle.
In the almost unbearable heat of the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a 2-0 deficit to Sweden had just been halved and a first ever World Cup participation looked as though it might, just might, be prolonged a little bit longer. Even if it was just for 30 minutes of extra time.
But only five minutes of the 1994 World Cup round of 16 clash against the Scandinavians were left, and players from both teams were on their last legs.
Saudi Arabia’s World Cup odyssey was already a success, having progressed from an incredibly tough group that included the Netherlands, Belgium and Morocco. What’s more, thanks to Saeed Al Owairan’s stunning solo winner against the Belgians, they had already given the tournament one of its most iconic moments.
No doubt, the emotion, not to mention physical effort, of arguably the greatest day in Saudi football history had left the players drained. Sweden, who had an extra day’s rest, had themselves just come off a 1-1 draw with tournament favorites Brazil.
But here time was running out.
Jorge Solari’s team had given themselves a mountain to climb by going down to an early goal by Martin Dhahlin, one of Sweden’s players of the tournament, when he beat a static Saudi defense to head firmly past Mohamed Al-Deayea.
But by now, this was a Saudi team that was ready to go toe to toe with some of the world’s best teams, so there was no immediate cause to panic. They just needed to stay in the game and grab their chance when it came. This they managed to do admirably until half time. The Swedes may have had a slight edge, but it remained a finely-balanced tie as the players got a well-deserved break.
For the sake of the global broadcasting timings, matches at USA 94 were often played in the middle of the day, in extremely high temperatures and with the sun directly overhead. This was one of those matches and it often showed.
Any assumption that the conditions would favor the Saudi players were counterbalanced by the fact that this was a fitter, more experienced Swedish team well acquainted with conditions of international summer tournaments.
And they displayed that superiority by doubling their lead just six minutes into the second half. This time it was Kennet Andersson, another of the competition’s standout players, who scored from outside the box and celebrated in what was becoming a very distinctive fashion.
The game looked up for the Saudis. Two goals down in these harsh conditions looked one hurdle too far.
But Argentine coach Scolari still had a couple of cards to play. Just a few minutes after Sweden’s second goal, he boldly replaced captain Mohamed Al-Jawad with Fahad Al-Ghesheyan, a defensive player for an attacker. On 63 minutes, he made his final move, bringing on Khalid Al-Muwallid for the tiring Fahad Al-Bishi. Both substitutions would prove inspired, in particular the first one.
With nothing to lose, the Saudi’s decided to give it one last herculean effort to turn the match around, to go for broke. And it nearly worked.
The match was heading into its last five official minutes when Al-Ghesheyan scored a goal which, in its own way, was just as stunning as Al-Owairan’s effort against Belgium four days earlier.
From the halfway line, Sami Al-Jaber played a sensational left-footed pass into the path of Al-Ghesheyan, who had found a few yards of space on the right wing. Still, there looked no immediate danger to the Swedish defense.
The substitute, clearly fresher than most around him, had other ideas. With one move he cut back onto his left foot inside the retreating Patrik Andersson before releasing a ferocious finish into the roof of Swedish goalkeeper Ravelli’s goal.
With 85 minutes on the clock, it was 2-1, and the miracle was on. The Saudis at long last had the belief that was lacking in earlier part of the match. And the momentum.
For three minutes that dream soared. But there would be no fairytale end to this story.
Kennet Anderssen, in cold-blooded style, delivered the decisive blow with a fine volley on 88 minutes from outside the six-yard box. There would be no coming back from that for the Saudis.
A few minutes later, the final whistle confirmed Sweden’s progress to the quarter-finals - where they would go on to beat Bulgaria on penalties - and brought curtain down on Saudi Arabia’s first ever participation at the World Cup.
USA ‘94 was a landmark tournament for the Saudis in more ways than one, with their qualification to the second round only the second ever achieved by team from then Asian Football Federation. It was also the second time by an Arab team, after Morocco in 1986.
And it set the bar for brighter future for the Kingdom’s national team.
Saudi Arabia would go on to qualify to the next three World Cups; France ‘98, Korea and Japan 2002, and Germany 2006, but with less impressive results. After an absence of 12 years, Saudi returned to the World Cup in France two years ago, where they exited the tournament in the group stages again.
Those heady days at USA ‘94, and that match against Sweden, remain the furthest that Saudi Arabia has progressed in the World Cup to this day.
Back home the team was received as heroes, with names like Al-Jaber, Al-Ghesheyan, Al-Owairan, Al-Deayea, Al-Jawad, group stage hero Fuad Anwar and the rest immortalized as the nation’s first Golden Generation of footballers.
Others would follow in their footsteps with distinction in the following two and half decades. But none would reach their heights.