Kuala Lumpur: Over the past few decades, Asian football has produced some iconic national teams. In this series, the-AFC.com looks at some of those generations that shaped the sport in the world’s largest continent.
When Japan defeated China PR to be crowned continental champions in 2004, that was the first AFC Asian Cup final not to feature Saudi Arabia for 24 years. This incredible stat is perhaps the best testament to how dominant the Green Falcons had been in the last part of the 20th century.
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Since the inception of their national team in 1957, Saudi Arabia lingered in mediocrity throughout the first 25 years of the team’s existence. Bright moments were few and far between, while defeat was the norm. In 1961, they were on the receiving end of their heaviest defeat to date; a 13-0 loss at the hands of the United Arab Republic; a short-lived union between Syria and Egypt.
It wasn’t until the mid-eighties that the Green Falcons had their first foray into the spotlight of Asian football. Led by a 25-year-old Majed Abdullah, Saudi Arabia stunned the continent to snatch the trophy in their first AFC Asian Cup appearance in Singapore 1984 under local coach Khalil Al Zayani.
The same crop of talented footballers repeated the feat four years later in neighbouring Qatar under Carlos Alberto Parreira. Their two consecutive triumphs in the continental competition announced to the world the birth of a new Asian powerhouse. The next decade would see the best of Saudi Arabia on the pitch.
Hiroshima, November 8, 1992. Saleh Al Nuaima, Saleh Khalifa and other key pillars of the 1980s generation had by now retired, making space for youngsters like Fouad Anwar and Fahad Al Bishi; the latter had so far dazzled as the Green Falcons reached the 1992 AFC Asian Cup final, but it was third time unlucky for the Saudis as hosts Japan held out to a Takuya Takagi first-half-goal to clinch the title and stake their own claim to the supremacy of Asia.
Disappointment would make way for greater joy less than two years later. An epic night in Doha saw Saudi Arabia come out on top in an unforgettable seven-goal thriller against Islamic Republic of Iran. The 4-3 victory meant it was the Saudis who would represent Asia in the 1994 FIFA World Cup alongside Korea Republic. The 40,000 fans who had travelled to the Qatari capital celebrated all night as their team secured a place amongst the world’s best for the first time in their history.
Although Saudi Arabia have since qualified to the FIFA World Cup on four more occasions, USA 94’ would prove to be their best campaign to date. Saeed Al Owairan’s iconic solo goal against Belgium remains one of the finest ever scored on the global stage. Wins over Morocco and Belgium earned the Green Falcons their one and only appearance in the Round of 16, where they were eliminated by Sweden.
Closer to home, the era of Majed Abdullah was over, and it was the emergence of Sami Al Jaber and Hussein Abdulghani as the new icons of the team. Under the tutelage of Portuguese boss Nilo Vingada, Saudi Arabia set out to win back their continental throne, this time in the UAE in 1996.
The campaign started with a bang, as Khalid Al Temawi and Fahad Al Mehallel bagged a brace each in a 6-0 defeat of Thailand. Al Mehallel’s third goal of the tournament was the difference against Iraq and meant the Matchday Three defeat to IR Iran was insignificant as the Green Falcons advanced to the quarter-finals.
Zayed Sports City witnessed a memorable comeback as Vingada’s men overturned a 2-0 deficit to beat China PR 4-3 to set-up a semi-final encounter against IR Iran. Mohammed Al Deayea put in a performance for the ages, saving two penalties in the shootout after 120 minutes ended goalless.
Next up was the challenge of the hosts. In front of 60,000 fans, the final went to penalties after an extended stalemate. Al Deayea cemented his status as a national hero by denying Yousef Saleh, but he needed help from the upright which deflected Hassan Saeed’s spot-kick, allowing Khalid Al Muwallad to win Saudi Arabia their third continental title.
The golden 90s continued for Saudi Arabia, and Doha was again the venue for qualification to the World Cup. This time, it was a 1-0 win over Qatar that secured a place in France 1998. The finals campaign was not as successful as 1994, with defeats to Denmark and France followed by a 2-2 draw against South Africa, where Al Jaber and Al Thunayan scored from the spot.
A decade and a half of unprecedented success culminated in a fifth consecutive AFC Asian Cup final appearance. An emerging generation led by Milan Macala and featuring names like 2000 AFC Player of the Year Nawaf Al Temyat and youngster Mohammed Al Shalhoub defeated Kuwait and Korea Republic in the knock-out stages en route to the final, but a fourth title ultimately eluded them as Shigeyoshi Mochizuki’s goal won it for Japan.
That defeat in Beirut signaled the end of one of the continent’s finest teams, the Saudis struggled for years after that, exiting the 2004 AFC Asian Cup at the group stage, and missing on World Cup qualification in 2010 and 2014. Their 1980s and 1990s side will always be remembered as one of Asia’s great national teams.
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