Participating in their first-ever World Cup soccer finals, the swift and scrappy Saudi Arabian national team earned the respect—even the affection—of football fans around the United States and the globe this summer as they finessed their way into the tournament's second round.
"Americans cheer for the underdog, especially if you put up a good fight," said Adel al-Jubeir, First Secretary of the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. "We did put up a good fight and we certainly weren't intimidated by our opponents. We won friends and admiration with our play. We surprised some people." .
Though the Saudis fell to Sweden 3-1 in the knockout round, Swedish coach Tommy Svensson praised thier flair, grace and aggressiveness—and their, short passes.
"We took them very seriously," said Svensson, whose team fell in turn to Brazil in the semifinals and finished third overall. "We knew before the match that the Saudis were not going to be easy. I think the other teams didn't have as much respect for them as we did. They were wrong."
The defining moment for the Saudis in World Cup 94, which silenced skeptics and set Arab fans roaring, came in the fifth minute of the match against Belgium's Red Devils at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Midfielder Saeed al-Oweiran took the ball behind the midfield line and sprinted forward in what one sports writer called "one of the great, long-distance scoring runs in World Cup annals." The amazing 60-meter attack elicited comparisons to Argentine football great Diego Maradona's score in the 1986 semifinals against England, and may well have been the most electrifying play in the entire tournament.
The sprint lasted only a few seconds, but by the time Oweiran blasted the ball into the net past Belgian goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme, he had maneuvered around, over and through four defenders, and had left them spinning, nearly falling over their own feet. A beautiful, masterful thing to watch, his run was repeated many times during the broadcast of the match and in later compilations of highlights. Even some newspapers ran sequential photographs showing Oweiran slicing through the Belgian defense. "He was really fast. He took us all," said Red Devil midfielder Franky van der Elst.
Though the Belgians outshot the Saudis 26 to 12, Oweiran's goal was all the Saudis needed to win their third match 1-0 and advance from the round of 24 to the round of 16 with a second-place finish in their division, behind the Dutch. (Unfortunately for the Moroccans, the only other Arab team in World Cup 94, good play didn't add up to any victories. The North Africans lost to the Dutch, the Saudis and the Belgians in the first round.)
Second place in the first round was just the result that Saudi coach Jorge Solari had predicted in his initial press conference before the finals began. Solari, who had only joined the team four months before, was elated with his side's success.
"We remind you of what we said—that we would finish second," Solari told reporters after the Belgium match, a twinkle in his eye. "We saw a lot of smiles then, because most people did not believe such a thing was possible. Well, it was."
Oweiran, who dedicated the goal to King Fahd ibn Abd al-'Aziz, said he felt tremendous pressure before the game. But the 24-year-old from the Shabab Sports Club said a call to his mother, who wished him luck, steadied him.
"I can't describe my feelings," said Oweiran after the Belgium match. "This victory is not for me, but for every Arab person," he said, and predicted a win over Sweden.
In an interview before the game, Oweiran had said that he believed the contest with the Belgians would be the toughest.
"They are a very good team," he said. "I respect their play. If we can beat them, we will advance."
Though all the team basked in the victory, much of the credit went to Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed al-Deayea, who blocked a number of goals. When a Belgian striker blasted the ball toward the goal mouth late in the match, the lanky al-Deayea leaped for the ball, seemed to stretch again in mid-air, then arched his body still further to stop the ball.
Al-Deayea, who plays for the al-Taee club, also made an impressive save during the match when the ball ricocheted off the head of one of his defending teammates.
Before the competition started, the Saudi team kept a low profile, training hard in the heat of a muggy Washington summer, where temperatures on the playing field reached 43 degrees Celsius (110°F) at times. Before the games, players were confined to their rooms for mandatory rest.
In an interview at the Grand Hotel, the team's headquarters in the capital, co-captain Mohammed Abdul Jawad said he and his teammates were both excited and confident going into the first match with the Netherlands.
"It wasn't easy to get here," said Abdul Jawad, a member of the 1984 soccer team that competed in the Los Angeles Olympic Games (See Aramco World, September-October 1984). Only Abdul Jawad, 31, and Majed Abdullah, the 34-year-old known as "the Desert Pele," remained on the Saudi team from that Olympic squad. "Majed and I go back a long time," joked Abdul Jawad. "We are the old men of this young team."
Abdul Jawad, who plays for the al-Ahli club, said he and his teammates of a decade ago had enjoyed playing in the Olympics. "We made friends, we played and we made progress. Making it to that level back then made us especially proud. It was the kingdom's first Olympics."
Abdul Jawad said his feelings were similar over getting to the finals of the World Cup, qualifying as one of the top 24 of the 141 soccer teams that competed in the globe's largest sporting event.
"Actually, this is probably an even greater achievement," said Abdul Jawad, who grew up admiring the play of Maradona and Brazilian soccer legend Pele. "It was a while coming, and I have no doubt that we earned our spot here." Later in the tournament, Abdul Jawad expressed irritation at commentators who said that the Saudis performed so well mainly because they were used to extreme desert heat.
"They should know that we play matches at night in Saudi Arabia," he said. "They should understand there is much more to our success here than just the heat." The Saudis had faced tough teams in winning the Asian Division to reach the World Cup finals, the co-captain said. In the second round of the qualifying matches, the Saudis advanced by beating Iran and North Korea and tying South Korea and Iraq. The star defender, who has played in more than 145 international matches, said Saudis and Arab-Americans alike had wished the footballers "hazz sa'id," or "good luck," many times.
"It means so much to represent our country here," said Abdul Jawad, who was separated from his wife and two boys, ages eight and three, for more than a month during the tournament. "The greetings, the good wishes...all of that raises our morale and makes us even more enthusiastic. Still, I miss my family more than a little."
Saudi goalie al-Deayea also scoffed at the idea that he and his teammates should be happy just to play in the World Cup finals.
"We've worked and trained hard to be here," he said before the competition started. "This is no fluke, and I think the world will see us perform at a good level," he predicted.
In both the Olympics and World Cup, soccer gave the Saudis a chance to show the United States a personal and personable face.
"We want to project a friendly image to the American people," said Prince Faysal ibn Fahd, Saudi Arabia's General President of Youth Welfare. "Unfortunately, too many of them think of Arabs as either terrorists or Bedouins. We want to show them that people are the same everywhere."
Ironically, there was little, if any, soccer played in Saudi Arabia only two decades ago. Grass soccer pitches were almost non-existent; the country's main sports were falconry and camel and horse racing. .
But as the country developed, its leaders decided that soccer—among other sports—was worth encouraging among the kingdom's youth.
In 1974, the General Presidency of Youth Welfare was created, in part to get as many Saudi boys as possible interested in sports such as soccer. Saudi Arabia's extensive and intensive national sports program produced rapid growth, both in quantity and quality. Today, more than 18,000 schools, colleges and universities in the kingdom emphasize sports and recreation as important parts of their curricula.
"It is not an exaggeration to say that we have come from sand lots to the World Cup in just 20 years" said Adel al-Jubeir of the Saudi Embassy. "We are the youngest team here, and the one with the least international experience. But we will do well."
After the boost from the 1984 Olympics, the kingdom successfully defended its Asian Games Gold Cup, first won in 1984. In 1989, the Saudis hosted the fifth World Youth Soccer Cup championship and stunned the soccer community by winning the title.
The country's professional league was only started two years ago, with many of the top players coming from that Youth Soccer Cup championship team. Raed Attar, a 27-year-old Saudi Aramco engineer who lives in Jiddah, follows club soccer closely in his homeland. He came all the way to the United States to follow his national team.
"This is great," he said at the team's hotel, where he got autographs from many of the players. "We have won many championships and come very close in the past. But to finally get here, especially after having not quite reached this level in 1990—well, it means so much to us."
Abbas Serafi, a Jiddah-based mechanical engineer, said his only disappointment was that the Saudis and the Moroccan team were both in the same first-round group.
"If our team should not advance, I will be for our Arab brothers," he said. "But I have to say, I want our guys to get to the next round most of all. As for the overall winner, I am thinking it will be Brazil."
In addition to watching the matches, Attar and Serafi, along with their friends Anas Attar and Abdulaziz Alaiban, also took in Saudi cultural events staged in Washington.
"Americans know more about us now than they did 10 years ago, but there are still some big gaps," said Anas Attar. "This helps create more understanding."
Before the first match against the Netherlands on June 20, Dutch fans in orange capes, orange-painted faces and huge, orange wooden shoes were predicting a blow-out by a score of 5-0 or more.
But in a pattern they were to keep up through the first round, the Saudis silenced the Dutchmen and their chants from Aïda with an initial goal. It came in the 19th minute on a short header by forward Fuad Amin off a free kick by Saeed al-Oweiran. Dutch goalie Ed de Goey lunged for the ball, but could only grope with his left hand at empty air.
As the Hollanders felt silent, the Saudis gasped and then erupted, waving flags, banging drums, shouting and ululating at the top of their lungs.
Down on the field, Amin reacted emotionally, sprinting down one side of the pitch, shaking his white jersey at the overwhelmingly orange-clad crowd. "Do you still think you'll beat us 5-0?" his face seemed to say.
The Saudis carried the lead into the locker room at half time, thanks to their speed and aggressive play. In the press box, reporters were talking about what might become the biggest World Cup upset since the United States beat England in 1950. In the lines at refreshment stands, Dutch faces were long.
But in the locker room, the Dutch players managed to find a new resolve. They came back out, asserting themselves, controlling the ball, finding—and creating—gaps in the Saudi defense.
Midfielders Frank Rijkaard and Wim Jonk got off 10 shots between them, among the 29 the Dutch fired at the goal. At the 50th minute, Jonk drove in the equalizer.
For the next 37 minutes, the score remained tied. But at the 87th minute, goalie al-Deayea came out too far and allowed Dutch forward Gaston Taument to punch a header into the empty net. The Saudis lost 2-1.
After the match, Amin told reporters, "I am disappointed. But we played with style. We were not intimidated. We played well." Jorge Solari was also pleased. "With a little more experience, we could have done better," he said at a later press conference. "They thought they were going to just come here and have a party tonight. They didn't."
Five days later, before a crowd of more than 72,000 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Saudis again demonstrated that they had been underrated. In the eighth minute, Sami al-Jaber was tripped near the goal. His penalty kick blasted past the Moroccan goalie, Khalil Azmi. Much of the pro-Morocco crowd fell quiet as, again, the Saudis roared.
In the 27th minute, the Moroccans answered when Ahmed Bahja confused the Saudi defenders with dazzling footwork. He got the ball to Mohammed Chaouch, who drilled it past al-Deayea.
But the North Africans could not find the net after that, thanks in large part to the leaps and twists of al-Deayea, who shut the Moroccans down, blocking more than 25 of their kicks.
Then, just before the half, Amin snagged a weak Moroccan pass at midfield, dribbled to about 25 yards from the goal and booted a shot that faded to the far post and then sliced back into the net. Azmi, clearly fooled by the shot, could only get one hand on it.
Co-captain Abdul Jawad marveled at the kick. "It was like a banana!" he exclaimed. "The goalie went to his right and the ball bent back in. It surprised him."
With a long history of good soccer, and a number of players on European clubs, the Moroccans were clearly the statistical favorites in the match. But in the second half, the crowd's sentiments seemed to shift toward the Saudis. In spite of flashes of brilliance, the minutes ticked away for the frustrated Moroccans, who outshot their opponents 29-10. When the clock finally ran down, it was Saudi Arabia in a 2-1 upset of Morocco.
"I feel happiness. I feel good for the win," said al-Deayea.
Adel al-Jubeir, of the kingdom's embassy, was elated as well. "We have exceeded most people's expectations. This is great stuff."
As for mixed feelings about defeating a fellow Arab team, he said, "Sports are sports and politics are politics. Of course I'm glad we beat them."
Back in RFK Stadium four days later, the magic was still with the Saudi team. Despite being outshot 26-12, Oweiran's Maradona-like goal in the fifth minute and al-Deayea's great blocks toppled Belgium from the top of Group F, barely allowing them to squeak into the second round in third place.
"We could not get the ball in the net," said forward Josip Weber, who missed a header near the mouth of the goal near the end of the match.
On the field, Saudi players were beside themselves with joy. Abdul jawad made a big circle with his arms raised, lost in his own emotions. Other Saudi players jumped into each other's arms and then clapped for the fans, who screamed back at them and waved bright green flags.
"It was a fantastic match," said Solari. "We were able to control the game. We kept our form superbly." He also took the opportunity to thank King Fahd, with whom he had spoken the night before. "Because of his direction, we made this victory," said Solari, who also thanked the Saudi people for their solid support.
In the kingdom, there was celebration. One newspaper's banner headline read, "In America, Against Belgium, We Showed The World."
But all things end, and Saudi Arabia's string of successes ended in Dallas on July 2, when Sweden eliminated the Saudis from the tournament with a 3-1 defeat. They did it with a tough defense that stifled the Saudis' counterattacks, and by doing the small things well despite the heat of the Cotton Bowl.
Some 60,277 fans watched as the Swedes took a page from the Saudi script by scoring in the sixth minute, when forward Martin Dahlin knocked a header past al-Deayea from the left side of the penalty box.
In the 42nd minute, the Saudis had a good chance to score when Fahad al-Huraifi al-Bishi got the ball in front of the Swedish goal. But he slipped and gave the opposing goalie just enough time to block his shot.
Still, the Saudis were not out of the match, going into the locker room down just 1-0. But Kennet Andersson, the Swedes' 193-centimeter (6'4") striker, chilled the Saudis in the 51st minute when he leaped over Abdul Jawad to get the ball, cut across the top of the penalty area and blasted a left-footed shot into the lower right corner of the net.
The Arab team gathered itself again and played some of its best soccer between the 65th and 77th minutes. Their aggressiwe play garnered six corner kicks in that time, but Swedish goalkeeper Thomas Kavelli and the Swedish defense kept them out of the goal.
Then, in the 85th minute, Fahad al-Ghashiyan narrowed the gap with a beautiful feint on the right and a blast just past the near post. Saudi fans, who turned whole sections of the stadium green with their clothing and flags, came back to life as the momentum seemed to shift to their team.
But the lanky Andersson quieted those cheers three minutes later when he scored his second goal of the match. Behind 3-1 and exhausted by the heat, the Saudis closed out their World Cup effort.
Not, however, without praise from all corners. In Bangladesh, the mass-circulation daily newspaper Banglabazar Patrika ran the headline "Desert Tigers Go Down Fighting."
One of the best accolades came from Tommy Svensson, the Swedish coach.
"I have no doubt that Saudi Arabia has a very good team," said the balding Svensson. "Its best quality is the attack, a powerful and fast attack. Our success came because we took the time to analyze them."
Nor was there any head-hanging on the part of the Saudi team.
"We're going home heroes," said Abdul Jawad. "I think we can all feel good about what we accomplished here."
Brian Clark covered the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympic Games for Aramco World.