When Saudi Arabia’s footballers ruled Asia

Saudi Arabian football player Khaled Massad (R) fighting for the ball with an Emirati player. (File/Rabih Moghrabi/AFP)
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Updated 11 April 2020

When Saudi Arabia’s footballers ruled Asia

  • This was a tournament that the Saudis ruled, but they've suffered ever since
  • What was a record third AFC Asian Cup title in 1996 remains the last time Saudi has won the competition

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s first ever participation at the AFC Asian Cup in 1984 brought a first title. The second saw them retain that title. Few countries in the world can claim such perfect beginnings.

Incredibly, Saudi Arabia would reach the next three finals as well, though with contrasting fortunes. Throw in four consecutive qualifications to the World Cup from 1994 to 2006 and no wonder the Kingdom’s national team quickly established themselves as one of the giants of Asian football.

In that sense, the 1996 AFC Asian Cup remains a bittersweet a pinnacle of sorts, a highpoint that the Saudi’s footballers have constantly failed to scale on the continental stage since.

Having lost the 1992 AFC Asian Cup final to Japan, the Saudis performed heroically at the 1994 World Cup in the US and kept that momentum going in the next regional tournament by winning the Gulf Cup in Abu Dhabi later that year. With the Asian Cup also set to be held across the Emirates two years later, the signs were positive.

When they arrived in the UAE in December 1996, despite being in a group that included heavyweights Iran and Iraq, Saudi were firm favorites to walk away with third title.

Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada’s team kicked off their Group B fixtures in sensational style on Dec. 5, thrashing Thailand 6-0 at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai, with World Cup heroes Sami Al-Jaber and Khalid Al-Muwallid among the scorers.

With Iraq beating Iran 2-1 on the same day, the clash between the Gulf neighbors three days later a straight shootout to lead the group..

It proved a tight match which Fahad Al-Mehallel, who had scored twice again Thailand, scoring the only goal in the first half. With that 1-0 win, Saudi looked almost certain to progress to the last eight.

But awaiting them in the final group match was Iran, who needed a win to drag themselves into contention. A complacent Saudi team were duly hammered 3-0 on Dec. 11, which meant they finished second in the group, behind Iran. Iraq also managed to squeeze through to the next round as one of the best third-place finishers in the 12-team tournament.

The quarter-finals would provide some of the most iconic moments in the competition’s history, with Saudi and Iran playing, providing spectacular drama in their respective matches on Dec. 15.

Against China at Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, Saudi got off to the worst possible start, going two goals down inside the first 16 minutes. Counting the dismal display against Iran, five goals in a row had been conceded with no reply. A quick change of fortune, and attitude, was needed.

Fortunately, this was a battle-hardened Saudi team, and could call on several years of top class experience, particularly their memorable World Cup odyssey at USA ‘94.

What followed, for 35 minutes either side of half time, was arguably the most sustained period of excellence by a Saudi team in the nation’s history.

Yousuf Al-Thunayan pulled a goal back just after the half hour-mark and Al-Jaber, so often the savior, equalized on 43 minutes. In the blink of an eye, the Saudis were back on level terms, and they were not finished yet.

With two minutes of the first half left, Al Mehallel, quickly becoming the competition’s outstanding player, gave Saudi the lead. The Chinese players were shell-shocked as they walked off at the break.

The second half saw more of the same, and Saudi looked to have wrapped up the match, and a place in the semi-finals, when Al-Thunayan scored his second, and his team’s fourth, on 65 minutes.

There was minor scare when Zhang Enhua pulled a goal back late on, but there would be no more dramatics as the match finished 4-3 in Saudi Arabia’s favor.

Earlier that day, Iran had faced South Korea in Dubai, and with the score tied at 2-2 halfway through the second period, Al-Daei, who would go on to become the world’s highest international goal scorer, proceeded to produce one of the great individual performances the competition has ever seen.

Between the 66th and 89th minutes, he scored four times to give Iran a scarcely believable 6-2 win. And another meeting with Saudi in the semi-finals.

This time, there would be no complacency from the Saudis against the opponent that had humiliated them in the group stages.

The match ended goalless after extra time which meant penalties. Though Khalid Al-Temawi and Al-Muwallid missed for Saudi, a 4-3 shootout win was secured, with Daei of all people responsible for one of Iran’s three blanks.

Saudi, remarkably, had reached their fourth consecutive AFC Asian Cup final, and awaiting them were hosts UAE who were surfing the crest of patriotic wave in front of their delirious fans.

The final at Zayed Sports City, though tense and ultimately dramatic, was largely a disappointment. Adnan Al-Talyani, considered the UAE greatest footballer, missed a glaring opportunity to win the cup, but as in Saudi’s semi-final, there were no goals throughout the 120 minutes and it was down to penalties again.

Ibrahim Al-Harbi’s miss for Saudi was countered by two misses by the Emiratis, meaning Al-Muwallid could win it with his country’s fifth penalty.

He did not fail, confidently beating legendary UAE goalkeeper Muhsin Musabah by playing into the roof of the net. In the drama, a momentarily overwhelmed Al-Muwallid briefly looked back to see if that penalty was indeed the winner. The sight of his teammates rushing towards him gave him the answer as he embarked on an impromptu lap of honor around Zayed Sports City stadium.

Saudi were champions of Asia for a third time in four tournaments, equaling Iran’s record for number of titles to boot.

So why was this, in hindsight, a bittersweet triumph? Because despite establishing themselves as one of Asia’s finest teams since, that title in 1996 would be the last time they would win a competition they had made almost their own for 12 years.

There were further finals in 2000 and 2007, lost respectively to old rivals Japan and Iraq.

The return to the world in France two years ago has at least seen an upturn in the Saudi national team’s fortunes after missing two tournaments. With a younger generation of players emerging on the international scene, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in China might just be their chance to end that 27-year drought and emulate the beloved class of 96.

Now watch the shootout that clinched it:

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

Updated 20 October 2020

How Roberto Rivelino raised the bar for Saudi football

  • Roberto Rivelino was the highest calibre of footballed to be seen coming into the Kingdom
  • Rivelino raised standards on and off the Saudi pitch, opening the door for others to follow

LONDON: He arrived in Riyadh by Concorde from Rio to be greeted by thousands of Al-Hilal fans at the airport before being whisked to his hotel by Rolls-Royce. It was quite an entrance, but then in August 1978, Roberto Rivelino was quite a player, one of the best and most famous in the world. By the time the Brazilian left Saudi Arabia three seasons later, football in the country had changed and would never be the same again.

Fans of Al-Hilal and plenty of other clubs are accustomed to these days of watching exciting foreign talent in action in the league, but few have been as famous or as influential or - to put it in simple football terms -- as good as this Brazilian legend who made almost 100 appearances for the five-time world champions. He was the first big star in a season that was the first to feature foreign players.

Just weeks before, Saudi football leaders had watched Iran become the first team from Western Asia to compete at the World Cup, but there was already a determination to bring some serious talent to a professional league that had only just started in 1976. So in came the captain of Brazil, according to the influential World Soccer magazine, the 38th best player of the 20th century. 

Here was a star who stood out alongside Pele and Jairzinho in the 1970 World Cup winning team, hailed by many as the best ever. Fans in Saudi Arabia soon started to see just how good he was.

“It was almost amateur football at the time as football was really just starting there,” Rivelino said in an interview with Brazilian television in 2019, before Al-Hilal took on Rio club Flamengo at the FIFA Club World Cup.

“We trained at the same stadium in which we played the games. There were three teams in Riyadh and so we trained from 6 to 7 p.m., the next team from 7 to 8 and then the third from 8 to 9.”

The star had been part of the Brazil national team that played a friendly in Saudi Arabia ahead of the 1978 World Cup when conversations had started about a possible move.

“I talked to my family and then decided to go. It was my first time to play outside Brazil and though the culture and country was very different, it was a special time for me.”

Roberto Rivelino linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. (Twitter)

Progress was already being made in a country that had at the time a population of just nine million. Rivelino enjoyed driving a Mercedes car in Saudi Arabia, owning one had been a lifelong dream, and also enjoyed the pristine condition of the artificial pitches in the country. He did, however, find the weather difficult to adapt to at first, playing with a wet cloth in his mouth to try and retain as much moisture as possible.

The Brazilian linked up with Tunisian striker Nejib Limam, and they were imperious as Al-Hilal marched to the league title. It was clinched by the Brazilian in fine fashion in the penultimate game against challengers and rivals Al-Nassr. Rivelino pounced on a loose ball well outside the area and lashed home an unstoppable half-volley to score the only goal of the match. The first and only defeat of that season came in the final game with the trophy safely in the cabinet. It was joined by The King’s Cup the following year. 

“He made it look so easy but he worked hard to make it look easy,” said Limam. “At first defenders were in awe of him and that gave me opportunities but he was consistently good and gave local players a taste of what you need to be a world-class player, it is not just about talent but mentality.”

Despite often playing deep in midfield, Rivelino scored 23 goals in fewer than 60 appearances for Al-Hilal. His set-piece skill has yet to be surpassed and he even thrilled fans by scoring directly from a corner against Al-Ittihad, but there was more to it than that. For foreign players, especially in growing leagues, impact can’t be measured by statistics.

Rivelino raised standards on and off the pitch. Being the first Brazilian to play professionally in the region, he opened the door for players from the South American nation to follow and Zico, another midfield legend from the country, almost arrived. Many did come, coaches too, and they have played their part over the years.



(YouTube video)

Few though could have the impact of Rivelino.  “It was a good place to play football and I played well. I trained hard and I worked hard and it was a good time,” he reflected.

He felt that by the time he retired in 1981, he still could have done a job for a hugely-talented Brazil at the 1982 World Cup even though he was in his mid-thirties.

“They should have come to see me play but today you can play in Saudi Arabia and the national team still remember you but it was different then. 

“But I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone. I gave everything to the club and the club, the players and the fans treated me with respect and Al-Hilal will always have a special place in my heart.”

The same should be the case for anyone with an interest in Saudi Arabian football. Rivelino was one of the first foreign players in the country and remains one of the best.