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: