Saeed: Reaching 1996 final my proudest moment
Kalba: As the AFC Asian Cup returns to the UAE in January, Hassan Saeed remembers the last time they played hosts, when he led them to the final in 1996.
Never has the sound of a football cannoning off the woodwork sounded as loud as it did on the evening of December 21, 1996 as the 60,000 fans present at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Sport City were reduced to utter silence, watching their team’s top goalscorer in the tournament hit the post from 12 yards.
The finest of margins had just denied the UAE a historic victory in the final of the 1996 AFC Asian Cup against neighbours Saudi Arabia. Hassan Saeed was still holding his head in his hands, the 50 yard-walk to the halfway line feeling like a thousand miles as Khalid Al Muallad slotted home the winning penalty for the Green Falcons.
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“We gave everything but were ultimately unlucky with the penalty shootout,” said the former UAE international, whose three goals had helped the Whites reach their first-ever continental final, before his miss from the spot confirmed they would have to make do with silver.
“We had played in the Gulf Cup in Oman just before it and didn’t do well. So, when the AFC Asian Cup came around, we were determined to make amends.
Saeed and co did certainly make amends. Having finished fourth in the previous edition, the UAE started their home campaign with a 1-1 draw against Korea Republic, but their real start came in a dramatic win over Kuwait three days later.
“I had suffered an injury in the Gulf Cup, so was sat on the bench for the first match, but coach Tomislav Ivic had built his plans around me being part of his starting XI. I recovered and was fit for the Kuwait match.”
The UAE were 2-0 down to Kuwait at the half time break, then just eight minutes after the restart, Saeed moved into space at the far post, rising above his marker to head home a cross sent from left-back Munther Ali.
His goal laid the foundation for a memorable comeback. Talisman Adnan Al Talyani equalised two minutes later with another header, before Bakheet Saad sealed the 3-2 victory 10 minutes from time.
Saeed was on target again in the final group match, scoring the first in a 2-0 win over Indonesia as the Whites progressed to the quarter-finals as top of their group. A nervy affair against Iraq went into extra time before defender Abdulrahman Ibrahim rifled in a 30-yard free-kick. The first ever ‘Golden Goal’ in AFC Asian Cup history won the game for the hosts.
Playmaker Mohammed Ali stepped up to take the corner kick for the home side in the 69th minute, and Saeed sneaked into space inside the Kuwaiti box, before connecting perfectly with the cross, his powerful header leaving goalkeeper Falah Al Majidi rooted to the spot.
“It was the proudest moment of my entire career and I am forever grateful for it,” Saeed recalls, the spark in his eyes getting ever brighter. “I had scored in back-to-back matches in the group stage and my fitness was getting better as the tournament progressed. My goal against Kuwait sent us into the final and made me the team’s top scorer in the tournament.”
Saeed was arguably his side's best player in the final, constantly putting pressure on the Saudi defence. Early in the first half he dispossessed Abdullah Zubromawi to help set up a golden chance that was fluffed by Adanan Al Talyani. Saeed's relentless pressing caused Saudi left-back Hussein Abdulghani to get booked twice in two duels, leading to his dismissal.
The UAE ultimately could not capitalise on their numerical advantage, but despite the disappointment of the final. 1996 remains the Whites best result at an AFC Asian Cup, and Saeed believes their performance has laid a marker for the current generation to follow.
“Winning the title is the only result that counts as a success; we have finished fourth, third and second in previous tournaments, so the only thing left is for the UAE to win the AFC Asian Cup.
“This generation brought UAE back to the forefront after we had struggled for a few years in the early 2000s. They have what it takes.If this group of players work hard and remember that you always have to give 200 percent, they can do better than us and bring joy to the nation.”
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