When Saudi legend Sami Al-Jaber walked off into a World Cup sunset

“Saudi Arabia forward Sami Al-Jaber celebrates scoring against Tunisia in their first round Group H World Cup football match at Munich's World Cup Stadium, 14 June 2006. The match ended in a 2-2 draw. (AFP/ Valery Hache)
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Updated 16 April 2020

When Saudi legend Sami Al-Jaber walked off into a World Cup sunset

  • Germany 2006 saw Al-Jaber deliver one last golden moment for his country
  • Al-Jaber was playing in a quite remarkable fourth consecutive World Cup finals

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:

UFC Fight Island delivers goods as Kamaru Usman reigns supreme in Abu Dhabi

Updated 12 July 2020

UFC Fight Island delivers goods as Kamaru Usman reigns supreme in Abu Dhabi

  • Alexander Volkanovski, Petr Yan and Rose Namajunas also score big victories at UFC 251
  • Main fight courted controversy with fans questioning the referee’s decision

DUBAI: It might have taken place behind closed doors, but Fight Island in Abu Dhabi delivered on its promises, with Kamaru Usman retaining his welterweight title after defeating Jorge Masvidal in UFC 251’s main event on Yas Island.

MMA fans in the Middle East had to set their alarm clocks for the early hours of Sunday, July 12, to watch the biggest international sporting event since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with action at Flash Forum in the UAE capital kicking off at 2 a.m. local time.

At the weekend Masvidal had called Usman “weak-minded,” but the man who had replaced Gilbert Burns on only six days’ notice would come to regret those words, losing (50-45, 50-45, 49-46) to the “Nigerian Nightmare, ” who had words of praise for his opponent nonetheless.

“Gamebred [Masvidal] is the biggest, baddest dude out there right now,” Usman said. “I had to switch gears on six days’ notice. I know a lot was made of him taking this fight on short notice, but he was preparing. All these guys are preparing for one guy—and that’s me at the top of the mountain. I had to make a mental shift. I trained for Gilbert and had a completely different game plan. I had a lot of other things coming into the fight, but that’s no excuse.”

With the champion curiously focused on stomping on his opponent’s feet, the fight initially lacked the entertainment value of earlier bouts on the main card.

The challenger had edged the first round, but by the end of the second Usman looked to have squared it at 19-19. With the American fighter’s early energy subsiding, Usman took control of the fight to shade rounds three and four by taking the fight to the canvas. 

Kamaru Usman on his way to victory over Jorge Masvidal. (Getty Images/ UFC) 

“Gamebred is tough and he showed it out there,” he added. “He took a lot of big elbows on bottom, but he kept getting up and fighting. He didn’t quit.”

Masvidal needed to overcome Usman’s grappling tactics with a stoppage in the fifth and final round. This proved beyond his reach and Usman’s UFC record now stands at an impressive 12 wins and no losses, emulating the starts made by Anderson Silva and Khabib Nurmagomedov in MMA’s premier organization.

“I’m at the top of the mountain, I’m the champion,” Usman said. “Everybody’s looking at me. So there’s never going to be a shortage of contenders.”

The two fights leading up to the main event had arguably been the highlights of Fight Island, at once brutal and not short on controversy.

The American Max Holloway had looked set to avenge his loss to Australian Alexander Volkanovski in December’s UFC 245 after dominating the first two rounds comfortably. A stoppage or even knockout looked on the cards. However, Volkanovski reasserted himself in round three, and though he still looked to be trailing by most estimates by the end of the fight, was surprisingly awarded a split decision victory (48-47, 48-47, 47-48). The champion remains unbeaten after 19 professional MMA fights.

“It was a tough fight. He stood there and didn’t take a backwards step,” Volkanovski said. “He made it tough for me in the earlier rounds, I didn’t use the kicks as much as I would have liked, but I got the job done. That’s the main thing. I knew it was two rounds a piece going into that last round. I had to win that last round. I wanted a finish. He went for the finish. Unfortunately, neither of us got it. I won the decision and that’s what counts.”

“He’s a gamer,” he added. “We’re both hard workers, but I got the job done. Nothing but respect to Max. We had words, but maybe he was just trying to get in my head.”

The decision, however, did not go down well with fight fans online. Across social media, audiences voiced their dismay, many calling the fight 3-2 in favor of Holloway, and others posting barbed comments and memes questioning the judges’ competence and eyesight.

Just prior to that dramatic conclusion, the vacant bantamweight title had gone to Petr Yan who defeated Brazilian legend Jose Aldo in another controversial fight, though for entirely different reasons. As the undefeated Russian pounded his opponent mercilessly, the referee inexplicably allowed the fight to continue when a stoppage looked inevitable, and much needed. On Twitter,  “stop the fight” trended alongside #UFC251.

Russian champion Petr Yan lands a punch on Jose Aldo of Brazil. (Getty Images/ UFC)

“I expected it to be a hard fight,” Yan said. “He hit my leg and I was forced to change stance. It got me off my game a little bit. It is a crazy situation in the world to prepare for this fight. The world was closed, but we worked hard to prepare. Aldo is a legend. I have only respect for him.”

Yan revealed that he had planned to put pressure on his opponent, tire him out and then attack after the third round.

“That’s exactly what happened,” he said. “In the first and second round, he had hard punches and low kicks. I waited and pressured him. After the second round, I started to work. It was a good knockout. I liked it. My division has very tough fighters in the top five. The nmumber 1 contender is Aljamain Sterling. I will fight everyone. I like it, it’s my job.”

After the main card had kicked off with Amanda Ribas forcing Paige VanZant into a quick submission, one of the most anticipated fights of the night saw Rose Namajunas regain her straw-weight title by defeating Jessica Andrade by a split-decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29), the American having lost the title to her Brazilian rival at UFC 237 in May, 2019.

Rose Namajunas overcame Jessica Andrade at UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi. (Getty Images/ UFC)

“It was fun, man,” Namajunas said. “I was just in the right state of mind. That’s everything. Early on in the fight, I was doing great. Then I think she hit the desperation button and started really unloading. She caught me a couple times, but I just stayed strong.

Namajunas v Andrade was later named the fight of the night.

The prelims had seen Jiri Prochazka, on his UFC debut, showed why he is one of MMA’s most exciting talents by knocking out Volkan Oezdemir; Muslim Salikhov edged Zaleski dos Santos on a split decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28); Marcin Tybura overcame Maxim Grishin; Makwan Amirkhani stopped Dan Henry in the first round; and Leonardo Santos beat Roman Bogatov (29-26, 29-26, 29-26).

In the Early prelims Maxim Grishin of Poland won his heavyweight against Russian  Marcin Tybura (30-27, 30-27, 30-26); Raulian Paiva overcame Zhalgas Zhumagulov (29-28, 29-28, 29-28); Brazilian Karol Rosa defeated compatriot Vanessa Melo (30-26, 30-26, 30-27); and Davey Grant had kicked UFC Fight Island with a knockout win over Martin Day.

UFC Fight Island is set to air three more pay-per-view fight nights on July 15, 18 and 25. All will take place at Flash Forum.