When Saudi Arabia dreamed of a World Cup miracle

Swedish striker Kennet Andersson (C) kicks a ball as Saudi Arabian Ahmed Madani attempt to stop him, 03 July 1994 in Dallas, during the World Cup soccer match between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. (AFP/Mike Nelson)
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Updated 07 April 2020

When Saudi Arabia dreamed of a World Cup miracle

  • A heroic battle against Sweden at USA 94 remain’s the nation’s best performance at the World Cup
  • Some clever substitutions in extra time nearly clinched it for the Saudis

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. 


The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

Updated 01 June 2020

The 10 best Arab footballers to play in Europe

  • As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues

DUBAI: Germany’s Bundesliga is back. Spain’s La Liga, Serie A in Italy and the English Premier League, and maybe even the Champions League, are set to follow soon.

This means the likes of Mohamed Salah, Riyad Mahrez and others will once again be on our screens chasing some of the game’s top prizes.

As football takes tentative steps back toward normality, we take a look at some of the best Arab talent to make their mark in Europe’s top leagues.

10. Ali Al-Habsi

The only player from the Gulf to make the list, and one of a handful to try his luck abroad, Ali Al-Habsi is nothing short of an icon in his native Oman. 

Having started at local club Al-Mudhaiba, his career has seen him play for Norway’s Lyn Oslo before a move to England and stints at Bolton, Wigan (where he won an FA Cup medal despite not playing in the 2013 final against Manchester City), Brighton and Reading. A two-year spell in the Saudi Professional League with Al-Hilal was followed by a return to England and West Brom, where he currently remains at the age of 38.

Admired and loved everywhere he has gone, and a role model and hero in his country and across the Gulf.

9. Mido

Many see this as a career that promised more than it delivered with the much-traveled Egypt international perceived not to have made the most of his undoubted talent during his European journey. Still, he has a track record that few Arab footballers can match, with spells of varying success at Ajax, Marseille, Roma, Tottenham, Middlesbrough and West Ham, among others.

After starting his career in Cairo with Zamalek, Mido made his big move to Europe by joining Genk in Belgium, but really caught the eye at Ajax, where he partnered a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic in attack, and won the Eredivisie title in 2001-02. 

A turbulent international career brought 51 caps, but he will mostly be remembered by European audiences as a maverick talent with a nomadic streak that never truly settled at any of his clubs.

8. Hakim Ziyech

To many football fans, Hakim Ziyech only came to wider attention in the past two years, but at 27 he is already a veteran of eight years of top-flight football in Holland’s Eredivisie. 

After spending two years each at Heerenveen and FC Twente, he truly blossomed after joining Ajax in 2016.

Despite representing the Netherlands at age group levels, the Dutch-born Hakimi eventually chose to play senior international football for Morocco, and in 2018 was part of the team that acquitted itself so well at the World Cup in Russia.

In 2018-29 he delivered some outstanding displays as Ajax progressed to the Champions League semifinal — where they were ultimately beaten in heartbreaking fashion by Tottenham — and also won the Eredivisie title. His performances against Real Madrid and Juventus, as well as his consistency in the Dutch top flight, quickly marked him out as one of  Europe’s hottest prospects. Chelsea emerged as the big winners in the race to sign Ziyech, paying €40 million for his services as of next season.

Holland’s loss is the Premier League’s gain.

7. Achraf Hakimi

Another young superstar on the rise. Achraf Hakimi remains officially on the books of Real Madrid — where he had spent a decade as youth and first team player — but has for the past two seasons proved himself as one of the continent’s finest right-backs with Borussia Dortmund. 

His forays into the opposition half and goal contributions, whether scored or assisted, have invited comparisons to Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold as two of the finest players in their position today.

With his two-season loan deal in Germany about to expire, the Madrid-born 21-year-old is set to return to his parent club where coach Zinedine Zidane could well consider him ready to be starter.

Despite not playing in the 2017-18 Champions League final against Liverpool while still at Madrid, Hakimi claimed a winners’ medal to become the first Moroccan to achieve that feat.

Hakimi was part of Morocco’s squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and with 28 caps to his name already, a long and successful career at club and international level beckons.

6. Abdelkrim Merry (“Krimau”)

A true pioneer in every sense. One of the first Arab footballers to star in Europe, the man nicknamed Krimau played his entire career in France. But unlike many North African footballers who followed in his footsteps, the Casablanca-born forward would end up representing Morocco, rather than his adopted home, fleetingly but to great acclaim.

His meagre international career of only 13 matches included his nation’s memorable participation at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, where Morocco topped their group ahead of European heavyweights England, Poland and Portugal.

Against the latter, Krimau captured the imagination of the watching world, scoring once and generally running the Portuguese defense ragged as Morocco ran out 3-1 winners. The result confirmed them as the first African and Arab nation to progress to the knock-out stages of the World Cup, where they narrowly lost to eventual finalists West Germany.

At club level, Krimau started off at Bastia before playing for Lille, Toulouse, Metz, Strasbourg and Saint-Etienne, to name just a few of his clubs. 

5. Noureddine Naybet

Younger fans may not be familiar with Naybet’s career, but the Moroccan international is to this day fondly remembered at Deportivo La Coruna, for whom he won one Spanish La Liga title, one Copa Del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups after joining from Nantes in 1996. 

Naybet, capped 115 times by his country, and a veteran of the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, had joined Portugal’s Sporting Club from Moroccan powerhouse Wydad before moving to France in 1993.

Rounded up his career in Europe in the Premier League with two seasons at Tottenham, but his heroics in Spain is what he will forever be revered for.

4. Mehdi Benatia

Yet another of the string of Moroccan internationals to excel in Europe, with his medal collection the envy of most footballers around the world.

The French-born Mehdi Benatia has spent the entirety of his career in Europe, starting out at Marseille before eventually moving to Udinese and then Roma in Italy.

It was at Bayern Munich and Juventus, however, that he hit the peak of his career, winning two Bundesliga and three Serie A titles respectively as well as enjoying German and Italian cup success.

Capped a wonderful career by leading his country to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after an absence of 20 years from football’s ultimate stage.

3. Riyad Mahrez

The gifted Algerian winger’s two Premier League titles could not have been in more different circumstances. The first, with Leicester City in 2015-16, is widely regarded as one of football’s most unlikely triumphs, one that to this day stretches credibility. The second, in 2018-19, was part of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City side that claimed the Premier League trophy for the second year running.

All of which makes his relatively modest introduction to English football all the more remarkable.

After joining Leicester from Le Havre at the start of 2014, he helped the club to win the Championship a few months later and, after a difficult first season in the top flight, that miraculous Premier League title as well as the PFA Player’s Player of the Year for good measure.

Remains one of a select group of 10 players to have won English football’s biggest prize with two different clubs.

2. Rabah Madjer

One of the first Arab players to make an impact in Europe. And what an impact it was.

Rabeh Madjer gained worldwide acclaim with the equalizer for Algeria in their stunning 2-1 win over West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. That proved to be an inspiration for a stellar career.

After seven years at hometown club NA Hussein Dey, Madjer joined Racing Paris in 1983, before moving on two years later to Portuguese giants Porto, where he enjoyed the best and most memorable years of his career. Most famously, he scored a memorable back-heeled equalizer against Bayern Munich in the 1987 European Cup Final, which Porto eventually won 2-1.

Later that year he scored an extra-time winner against Penarol of Uruguay as Porto won the Intercontinental Cup (the predecessor to the FIFA Club World Cup) in Tokyo.

Three Portuguese league titles and 50 goals in six years confirm him as one of his nation’s, and Arab football’s, greatest exports.

1. Mohamed Salah

Arguably the most recognizable and greatest Middle Eastern and Arab footballer of all time. He excelled at Basel in the Swiss Super League, and then struggled to get playing time at Chelsea, before a spell in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma set him on the path for global domination.

Since signing for Jurgen Klopp’s team in the summer of 2017, he has become one of the world’s best players, his move coinciding with, even inspiring, Liverpool’s transformation from contenders to proven winners. In his first season, the man fans call the Egyptian King finished top of the Premier League scoring charts with a record 34 goals and played a leading role in Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final, where he famously was injured and substituted in a 3-1 loss. He also won FIFA’s Puskas award for a solo effort against Everton.

The following season, Salah retained the Golden Boot as Liverpool just missed out on the Premier League title, but made up for it with Champions League success, the forward scoring the opener in the 2-0 win over Tottenham in the final. This season, the 27-year-old Salah finds himself on the verge of winning the Premier League trophy, something Liverpool have not done in 30 years.

Having led Egypt — for whom he has scored 41 international goals — to the 2018 World Cup, his legendary status, at home and for Liverpool, is beyond debate.