LONDON: It was 36 years ago today that Saudi Arabia arrived on the Asian stage — and what a debut it was.
The Green Falcons had never appeared at the Asian Cup before 1984, but they took to the tournament as no other team had before or since. Not only was that title won, but so were two of the next three. In fact, from 1984 to 2007, only once did the team fail to reach the final in a show of unprecedented consistency.
The 1984 Asian Cup in Singapore started against the original powerhouse. South Korea had already won two continental championships and, a few months later, would qualify for the 1986 World Cup.
The Taeguk Warriors took the lead but were stunned by a last-minute equalizer from legendary Saudi striker Majed Abdullah, who climbed above everyone to head home. So upset were the Korean fans in the crowd that they pelted their team with buns as they left the field.
Yet the Koreans admitted they had underestimated the West Asians, who had represented Asia at the 1984 Olympics when Abdullah scored in a 3-1 defeat against Brazil in front of over 40,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. By the time he arrived in Singapore, he had played over 80 games for his country despite being just 25 years old.
The former Al-Nassr striker was not your typical footballer. “Football is important, no doubt, and I owe much to it, but I have realized that it is not everything in life and there will come a time when I may not want to see another football,” he told reporters during the 1984 Asian Cup. “For me, the future is more important, the future and security of my family. I think I will stay another two years in football before going into business.”
Accurate on the pitch, he was wrong in this regard as he only stepped down from the national team a decade later after the 1994 World Cup, after playing close to 120 times for his country with over 70 goals.
After that opening goal against Korea, he struggled to find his shooting boots for a while in Singapore and did not get on the scoresheet as Saudi Arabia got through the group with 1-0 wins over Syria and Kuwait and a 1-1 draw with Qatar.
All that earned a semi-final against Iran — and what a game it was. Singapore’s leading newspaper Strait Times said, “Truly, Saudi Arabia must be the luckiest team ever to grace the National Stadium.”
None on the Saudi side cared. Iran had been on top for most of the game, and the opening goal scored by Shahrokh Bayani two minutes before half-time was deserved.
Yet Iran seemed to think the game was over with six minutes left when taking off their best forward Naser Mohammadkhani.
It invited pressure. Two minutes before full-time, defender and the goal scorer’s brother Shahin Bayani tried to head the ball out for a corner and found his own net instead. It went to a shootout in which Abdullah Al-Daeyea, elder brother of the legendary goalkeeper Mohammed, saved in the shootout that was won 5-4.
It earned a final with China. Saudi Arabia knew that they had not scored enough goals so far with just five in five, and Abdullah was keen to change all that. “The Asian Cup has been disappointing for me because I have not scored as many goals as I would have liked. The pitch is always muddy, and it makes things difficult for me, but that could change.”
It did. Saudi Arabia saved their best performance for the final in front of 26,000 fans who were pushing for China. Shaye Al-Nafisah opened the scoring after 10 minutes, shooting home on the turn from the edge of the area, and Abdullah sealed the win in the second half with a goal worthy of any final.
He picked up the ball just inside the Chinese half, skipped past two defenders, ran past the goalkeeper and won the trophy for Saudi Arabia. He was injured soon after, but still China could not get back in the game. “They were the better team, no doubt about that,” said Chinese coach Zheng Xue Lin. “Our defense was in shambles; they conceded two silly goals. We were not fit enough to threaten them for the entire match.”
Nobody knew it then, but this was a landmark win. It was a first for Saudi Arabia but not the last as coach Khalil Al-Zayani, just 37 at the time and a quick replacement for Brazilian Mario Zagallo, who had been fired earlier in the year, said years later.
“That was our first-ever title, and everyone was happy to get such a magnificent continental success,” Al-Zayani said. “The psychological side of football is very important, and this should work hand-in-hand with the tactical side. The Asian Cup in Singapore has always had a special meaning, not only for me but for all the people involved in Saudi football at the time. It was the start of a great era for us.”