DUBAI: It was almost the dream farewell.
Sami Al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s greatest footballer, had more than earned his moment of glory. And here, in the magnificent setting of Munich’s Allianz Arena, he was only minutes away from deservedly getting it.
In 2006, Al-Jaber was playing in a quite remarkable fourth consecutive World Cup finals. To put that in context, while he shares that feat with a number of other players, only four players in the history of the competition have managed five appearances.
Considering the historical difficulty of qualifying from the Asian Football Federation (AFC) zone, this was testament to his and his national team’s consistency since that memorable first participation at USA 94.
And here he was 12 years later, still going strong, still wearing his favored number 9, still captain of his nation at the age of 33.
Saudi Arabia had arrived in Germany hoping to banish the memory of a quite dismal 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, where their three group stage defeats had included an 8-0 humiliation and a change of manager.
The team, managed by Brazilian Marcos Paqueta, had been placed in a group with highly-rated Spain, Ukraine and Tunisia.
The opening clash between the two Arab nations gave them an opportunity to get three vital points on the board before the tougher, subsequent matches against the European heavyweights.
At the home of Bayern Munich, and in front of a 66,000-capacity crowd, Tunisia started the better of the two teams, and took a lead in the 23rd minute. Ziad Jaziri, who had earlier been denied what would have been a generous penalty, volleyed spectacularly into the top of the net after Saudi defender Redha Tukar had failed to properly clear an in swinging free-kick.
Saudi, with Al-Jaber starting the day on the substitute’s bench, gradually improved after the early setback. Tukar had a chance to make up for his error with a long-range curling free-kick, but there would be no change to the shoreline by half-time.
After the break, Saudi carried on where they left off, and Mohammed Noor failed to capitalize after being gifted a golden chance by the sleeping Tunisian defense.
But a breakthrough wasn’t far away.
A superb run and cross by Noor, was followed by an even better first-time finish by the maverick talent of striker Yasser Al-Qahtani. The wild celebrations on the touchline showed just what it meant to the Saudis; 1-1 on 57 minutes and all to play for.
The Saudis had to go for broke. Malek Mouath and Mohammed Ameen replaced Nawaf Al-Temyat and Noor on the 67th and 74th minutes respectively, but Saudis could not find that elusive lead, and nor could the dangerous Tunisians.
With eight of the 90 minutes left to play, Paqueta decided to play his final, trump card.
Off came a tiring Al-Qahtani to be replaced by Al-Jaber. The stage was all set for fairytale finale.
And it didn’t take long.
After a Tunisian move had broken down on the edge of the Saudi penalty area in the 84th minute, Saudi’s Ameen set off on a fine run that saw him beat two defenders before slipping pass to Mouath, who in turn showed commendable awareness by playing a first-time ball to the onrushing Al-Jaber.
The Saudi legend, now once again donning the captain’s armband, was through on goal with only Tunisian goalkeeper Ali Boumnjel to beat. Time seemed to stand still.
But if you wanted a man to keep his cool and deliver in such a situation, it was Al-Jaber. With a deft first touch and deadly left foot finish, Saudi were now in the lead. it was a masterstroke by coach Paqueta; his three substitutes had combined to score a superbly-worked goal. On their knees, the celebrating Saudi players offered prayers and looked to the skies.
All they had to do now was hold on for five minutes and stoppage time to claim a famous World Cup win, what would have been their first since Saeed Al-Owairan had danced through the Belgian defense 12 years earlier at USA 94.
That it looked like it was delivered by Al-Jaber in his last World Cup participation was the icing on the cake.
There was even a chance for Hussein Al-Sulaimani to put the result beyond doubt, but his left-footed free-kick hit the post in the dying moments of the match.
But it was those added minutes that would produce yet another twist in this dramatic match.
Just as the Saudi players were set to claim three points, Tunisia struck to break their hearts, and those of millions back home.
This time Jaziri was the provider in the second minute of stoppage time, his perfect cross met by a firm header from Radhi Jaidi that eluded Mabrouk Zaid in Saudi’s goal.
Moments later the final whistle went. A 2-2 draw felt like a defeat for Saudi having come so close to a win. Instead of wild celebrations, there were tired, muted handshakes all around.
Sadly, it would be as good as it got for Saudi at Germany 2006.
The next match in Hamburg, recalled some of the poor showing from four years earlier, with Saudis soundly beaten 4-0 and Andriy Schevchenko-inspired Ukraine team.
It meant Saudi had to beat Spain in their final Group H fixture and hope Tunisia beat Ukraine at the same time, to have any hope of progressing to the knockout stage of the World Cup for the second time in their history. Not even fairytales could cater for such a scenario.
In the event, the Saudis bowed out with some pride, only losing 1-0 to a Spanish team that included the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Raul, and which could call on substitutes Xavi, Fernando Torres and David Villa.
Al-Jaber had started the match but was taken off after 68 minutes. It would be the last time he would play in the green and white of his country. He retired with a record of 46 goals from 156 international matches.
Saudi’s performances and results in Germany were underwhelming, and it would be another 12 years before they returned to the World Cup.
But they had left us with one golden memory, a moment that could have been so much more. For the last, but certainly not the first, time, it had come from the incomparable Sami Al-Jaber.
Now see the Sami Al-Jaber in action: