For Saudi Arabia, it seemed, the 1984 Olympics were just a warm-up for the 1988 games in Seoul. Though they won no medals - and were eliminated from the soccer competition earlier than expected - the Saudis played hard, lost gracefully, cheered wildly and looked forward to Korea with hope. As the Saudi soccer coach Khalil al-Zayani put it so well: "We'll be back - and we'll be better."
Everyone seemed to be thinking the same way. Despite the early setbacks in soccer, for example, the disproportionately large crowd of Saudi fans continued to roar with enthusiasm each time a Saudi player so much as touched the ball. And though the kingdom's hopes for victory were soon crushed, the fans continued to wave the green and white Saudi flags - to the rhythmic beat of a drum - cheered with enthusiasm and dismissed defeats with philosophic shrugs. And when it was over, one fan, still smiling widely, summed up the crowd's reaction: "Just watch us in Korea."
The chief disappointment, in fact, was the failure of American television to broadcast soccer games. Though soccer was played all across the United States - from Harvard University to Palo Alto, California and the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles - TV coverage was so scant that Joao Havelange, president of the International Football Federation entered an official complaint with the International Olympics Committee (IOC).
Since five of the 16 soccer teams at the Olympics were Arab teams, many Arab fans were upset by the lack of coverage, but otherwise Arabs at the Olympics were generally pleased. Some, like the Saudi soccer fans and players, were happy just because they had qualified for and competed in the games. Others - from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Algeria and Morocco - were pleased because their own athletes did exceptionally well, or because many of the 600 athletes from 18 countries listed as Islamic countries won medals or at least exceeded expectations.
Of all the Islamic countries represented at the Los Angeles games, Morocco, of course, was the happiest. With two gold medals, (See pages 30 and 31), one of them the first ever won by an Arab woman, Morocco stole the show. But they were by no means alone. Pakistan won a gold medal in field hockey; Egypt and Syria won silver medals in judo and wrestling; Algeria and Turkey both won two bronze medals in boxing and Turkey another bronze in wrestling. Some of these countries also did well in basketball and weightlifting, and Saudi Arabia competed in five sports.
For most of the Arab fans, however, soccer was the game to watch - especially the Arab teams: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Iraq and Morocco.
Generally speaking, the Arab teams were a bit out of their league, but one team, Egypt, reached the quarter finals only to go down in defeat to Italy in a hard-fought match in which three Egyptians and an Italian were sidelined by referees and one player was suspended.
Despite that, Egypt recovered impressively at their Stanford University match at Palo Alto in which they crushed Costa Rica 4-1, only to collapse in their August 2 match with the United States.
In the final-eight competition, Egypt faced France, the eventual gold medalist and the team against which the Egyptians had managed a rugged two-hour scoreless tie during the Mediterranean Games in Casablanca last September. At Palo Alto the two teams nearly achieved the same result: after two hours the game went to penalty kicks.
Qatar, another Arab country with an Olympic soccer team, also started off brightly - holding mighty France to a 2-2 tie - and winning accolades from the French team manager, Henri Michel. "The Third World teams, including the Arabs, are getting much better," he said. "All teams are equal now, all have the same preparation. We'll be hearing from these teams in the future."
Later, however, at Harvard University across the continent in Massachusetts, Qatar's bright start was quickly dimmed by a 2-0 victory by Norway in a fiercely fought match that ended with 14 policemen escorting the players off the field.
Iraq also started well - with a draw against Canada and a lively game against Yugloslavia, one of Europe's better teams. The Iraqis, however, lost to Cameroon.
As for Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's team came to California with bright hopes and the backing of the whole kingdom. "We believe," said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, "that we have a very good chance for a medal, and the whole country is behind us."
That degree of confidence may have been premature, but it was not entirely unfounded. This spring, after all, the Saudi team stunned the world of football by beating a strong South Korean team 5-4 in the Asia-Oceanic Olympic Qualifying Rounds - and qualified for the Olympics.
With that victory, the Saudi team instantly achieved star-status - and triggered spontaneous celebrations of glee throughout the kingdom. Even the Royal Family showed its pleasure - with a' cascade of gifts to the players and a decision to publish a series of posh color advertisements in such magazines as Time, Life and Newsweek, the Sunday supplement Parade and newspapers from coast to coast, plus handsomely photographed nationwide televised spots.
Many people in the world of sports were stunned when the Saudi team began to beat teams like South Korea and New Zealand in the games at Singapore. Others, however, said the kingdom's strong showing was no aberration. In fact, they argued, improvements in football roughly parallel improvements in other areas. As the country advances as a whole, they said, so will its sports teams.
This is certainly possible. In 1976, the government's General Presidency for Youth Welfare decided to develop soccer in Saudi Arabia with the same intensity shown by other government agencies as they developed roads, communications, schools and universities and hospitals under a massive series of five year plans to industrialize and develop the kingdom. Initially, and wisely, the youth welfare group started by upgrading children's and teenage sports, but then, when the time was ripe, they brought in top soccer coaches and launched what has since become one of the best sports programs in the Middle East; by 1984 the kingdom was spending $30 million on sports.
As one result of this, Saudi soccer quietly established a toehold in the region and then, in 1982, startled the sports world when the Brazilian star Mario Zagalo, was brought in to coach the national soccer team, and Tele Santan came to coach the Jiddah al-Ahli Sports Club, one of the better teams in the kingdom. Then, last March, after a frustrating loss to Iraq in an Arabian Gulf tournament, Saudi Arabia replaced the national team coach with one of its own: Khalil al-Zayani, who had led his hometown club - al-Ittifaq of Dammam - to national and Gulf championships in years past. According to some observers it was al-Zayani's knowledge of Saudi psychology as well as his soccer skills that sparked Saudi wins over teams like New Zealand, Kuwait and South Korea in the Singapore showdown.
Those victories were exceptional. In 12 Olympic-trials games, the Saudis shut out their opponents five times and allowed only one goal in five other contests - surprising not only observers on the sports scene, but also themselves. As coach al-Zayani said, "Our boys did the impossible. I am incredibly happy."
But the Olympics still lay ahead and as the summer progressed, al-Zayani, to get ready for the team's debut at the Rose Bowl, took his team to Jubail on the Gulf Coast for two weeks, then to Portugal for intensive practice and training matches. Finally, along with Saudi Arabia's cyclists, archers, fencers and marksmen, the soccer players arrived in Los Angeles. Altogether there were 78 Saudi athletes, the largest delegation of Saudi sportsmen ever to attend the Olympics.
Although the soccer team quickly headed for the Dominguez Hills College football field south of Los Angeles to practice - and get used to L.A.'s famous smog - it was not all work. The athletes also got a chance to look around Los Angeles, tour the Universal Studios movie production lot and attend receptions and parties given by the Arab community of Los Angeles. As part of the Olympics Arts Festival - which gave each competing nation the opportunity to present shows and displays of its arts - the Saudis were able to hear their own favorite singer, Mohamed Abdu, the most popular singer in the kingdom.
Meanwhile, at the Saudi Information Center near the University of California at Los Angeles, Prince Turki ibn Sultan, one of the kingdom's delegation, in an interview with Aramco World, discussed the role of sports in Saudi Arabia. He said that Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of sports - hunting, with falcon and saluki, the desert greyhound, camel racing and horse racing - but that these days the emphasis is on modern sport. As a result, he said, the kingdom now has 154 football clubs, 132 track and field clubs, 132 volleyball clubs, 120 table tennis clubs 90 bicycling clubs, 69 handball clubs, 55 gymnastic clubs, 53 basketball clubs and 31 swimming programs.
Furthermore, he went on, the youth welfare presidency in charge of sports will build 26 new sports centers, 12 sports halls, three sports-medicine facilities and 15 new swimming pools under the third Five Year Plan. "Youth to a nation," said the prince, "is as springtime to the seasons. It is the ... barometer of a nation's progress."
At the Olympics, soccer, despite American disinterest in the game and media neglect, was one of the important crowd pleasers. Games were played right across the country - from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Palo Alto, California - and attracted vast crowds; indeed, as the 16 teams fought their way through the preliminary rounds, quarterfinals and semifinals to the finals, they drew the largest turnouts ever recorded in the United States. And though the Saudis did not advance past the first rounds, they played well enough to win praise from some of their opponents.
Since Saudi Arabia's first match saw them pitted against powerful Brazil, the handwriting was on the wall almost immediately. Brazil dominated the play right from the start and although the Saudi eleven came on strong in the second half - to score its only goal of the night - Brazil won 3-1.
After the game, Majed Abdullah, who scored the Saudis' single goal on a penalty kick, acknowledged that Brazil played well and that Saudi Arabia should have taken the offensive. "Their man-to-man defense controlled us," he said, "and each time we tried a different tactic, they managed to cover us well. We tried to attack in the second half, but it was to no avail."
Despite the defeat, Majed Abdullah said, he was overwhelmed by the number of Saudi fans in the stands and welcomed their loud, vocal support. "It helped, and it really wasn't expected. I just wish our play as a team would have been better."
Coach al-Zayani was also disappointed, but not upset. "We are still young and inexperienced in play," he said. "Our players were nervous and felt the pressure. When they adjusted, things changed and we played at our level. We are learning from our mistakes." Brazil's coach, praising his Arab opponents, agreed. "We had a very creative game going, but we have a lot of respect for the Saudis. They did well."
In the second match - against Morocco - Saudi Arabia did even better, but could not connect on its goal shots. Morocco won the game 1-0 - a frustrating defeat for the Saudis who buzzed the goal continually and got off shot after shot without putting any of them in the net.
Again, however, they won praise from their opponents and refused to be discouraged. Jose Faria, the Moroccan coach, said the Saudis were "great," and that the game as a whole was played "on a European level." And Coach al-Zayani said again that it was a matter of experience. "Things might have been different if we had capitalized on our chances. But we are still gaining experience. Morocco played only well enough to win."
Commenting on the same game, one player said that he was pleased to play another Arab team - because it showed how the sport is on the rise in the Middle East. "Five of the 16 teams in the Olympics are from the Arab world," he said, "The sport has a great future in our countries."
By the third game of the preliminaries, of course, the virtually scoreless Saudis were feeling the frustration - especially as, in their last game, West Germany easily ran up a 4-0 lead in the first half and ended the game with a 6-0 triumph - and with Samir Abd al-Shakour, 30 minutes into the second half, ejected for a foul. Though the players later declined to comment on the game, al-Zayani, like the fans, looked resolutely to the future. "We're disappointed ... but we're still glad to have been able to come here. And if we didn't play as well as we would have liked, well, we learned a lot ... and World Cup possibilities have been greatly enhanced. Furthermore, we look forward to marching in the closing ceremonies ..."
As to future Olympics, Coach al-Zayani summed it up for all the Saudi athletes. "We'll be back . .. and we'll be better."
John Goodbody, a former sports writer for London's newspapers and UPI and author of two books on the Olympics, now free-lances for Compass, the Third World feature and news service. Brian Clark, a staff writer for the Modesto Bee in California, covered the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo for Aramco World Magazine.