Kuala Lumpur: Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Saudi Arabia were the dominant force at the AFC Asian Cup, winning the Continental title in their first two appearances – in 1984 and 1988 – and finishing as runners-up to Japan in 1992.
But as the clock ticked towards the 1996 Finals in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia were under pressure. Coach Ze Mario had been fired following a disappointing showing at the Gulf Cup and new man Nelo Vingada given a month to prepare his team for the Finals.
Despite the difficulties, the Portuguese coach would lead Saudi Arabia to a record-equalling third continental title, the last time – to date – the country would claim the most prestigious trophy in the Asian game.
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Vingada was left in no doubt what was expected when he signed a two-month contract with the Saudi Arabia Football Federation in late October 1996: reclaim the AFC Asian Cup title and restore the country to their position as kings of Asian football.
Given just a month to prepare for the country’s assault on the continental title at the Finals in the United Arab Emirates, Vingada (pictured below) was taking over a team that, for all its talent and superstar status, existed under a cloud.
A third place finish – behind Kuwait and Qatar - at the Gulf Cup belied Saudi Arabia’s status as the regional powerhouse, a country that had played at the FIFA World Cup just two years earlier and had become the first Asian nation to reach the knockout rounds since DPR Korea in 1966.
Brazilian coach Ze Mario paid with his job, despite the proximity of the Asian Cup, a tournament Saudi Arabia had quickly and decisively claimed as their own with the country establishing itself as the continent’s preeminent power.
Under Khalil Al Zayani the country had won the continental title at the first attempt in 1984 and successfully defended the trophy four years later with Brazilian Carlos Alberto Parreira at the helm.
By 1994 they had qualified for the Finals of the FIFA World Cup for the first time in the country’s history, famously defeating Belgium courtesy of Saeed Owairan’s wonder goal to reach the Round of 16.
The only blip during that period had come at the AFC Asian Cup in 1992 when, despite reaching the final for a third tournament in a row, the Saudis went home without the trophy as hosts Japan sealed a 1-0 win courtesy of Takuya Takagi’s solitary goal at Hiroshima’s Big Arch Stadium.
As a result, the Finals in the UAE were the opportunity for the Saudis to restore order – as they saw it – and reclaim their title. The build-up, though, was anything but smooth.
“I received an approach through my friend Carlos Queiroz to be coach of the Olympic team of Saudi Arabia, and so I went to London to make the first approach and after we decided that was good I went to Riyadh to discuss many things,” Vingada tells the-AFC.com from his home in Portugal.
“But I received a phone call from the President of the federation saying they had fired Ze Mario and they want me, according to the interviews I had done the previous week, to invite me to become the head coach of the national team and prepare for the Asian Cup.”
Vingada arrived in Saudi Arabia off the back of working with the Portuguese Football Federation, having assisted Queiroz at age group level before taking control of the Olympic team, guiding the country to fourth place at the Atlanta Olympics the previous summer.
He set about instilling his ideas into the team quickly, shaping a side that featured World Cup stars such as Sami Al Jaber (pictured above, centre), Mohamed Al Daeyea and Mohammed Al Khilaiwi (pictured below, left) in his own style.
A friendly win over Bulgaria – who had reached the semi-finals of the 1994 World Cup – was an early sign of the progress being made and, by the time the tournament started in Abu Dhabi on December 4, the signs were positive.
“It was a very interesting month,” says Vingada of the preparation period. “From the beginning I could feel the talent of the players was fantastic. That game against Bulgaria was important because we needed a good result to confirm my vision and especially to confirm my philosophy and relationship with the players.”
When Vingada and his team reached Dubai for the AFC Asian Cup’s group phase they breezed through their opening two games, defeating Thailand 6-0 before a 1-0 win over Iraq guaranteed them a place in the quarter-finals with a game to spare. That final group game was to prove pivotal, as it pitted the Saudis against Islamic Republic of Iran.
“For me, and still I believe it, Iran was the best team,” he says. “They had the best players, fantastic quality players like Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi, Karim Bagheri, Afshin Peirovani. We were already qualified, so I decided to rest eight players and I decided to change the system, playing 3-5-2.
“We lost 3-0 and, of course, the alarms started ringing. I explained that we had rested our players and at that time the rest between games was not as much as it is now. Sometimes we played only 48 hours between games, so I wasn’t so worried.”
Soon after the serious business of knockout football began. China PR were Saudi Arabia’s quarter-final opponents and Qi Wusheng’s side bristled with talent. Inside the first 15 minutes the East Asians held a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Zhang Enhua and Peng Weiguo, forcing Vingada into action.
A roll of the dice saw veteran midfielder Youssef Al Thuniyan (pictured below) called from the bench and it did not take long for the Al Hilal star to work his magic. While he may have been deep into the later years of his career, the 33-year-old was still able to influence major matches and his introduction turned the game in Saudi Arabia’s favour.
“I knew how he could play, I knew he had quality,” says Vingada. “But I said to him that it was the right time to bring to the field your quality and your experience and your calmness, in a good atmosphere.
“We were lucky because he made the pass for 2-1 and then he scored to make it 2-2. I can say it was lucky, but also he was a great, talented player. Iran were maybe better players, stronger than us in some aspects, but the sum of our players was bigger than the sum of other players.
“Youssef Al Thuniyan brought something to our team that was needed at that time, to cool down and restart the game. It was amazing.”
It was a remarkable escape but, rather than easing their path to the title, the challenges grew even greater. Next up was another meeting with the Iranians, who had defeated Korea Republic 6-2 in their last eight encounter, with Ali Daei scoring four times in a blistering performance.
Vingada, though, was not concerned. A tactical switch from the teams’ first meeting and a full strength line-up meant the Saudis were ready to take on Mohammad Mayeli Kohan’s side.
“It was a great game,” says Vingada. “I think Iran lost, maybe, because of overconfidence. During the warm up, I told my players: ‘This is only a game, it’s 90 minutes or maybe 120 minutes. It’s 11 against 11.’
“I brought confidence and optimism and special concentration to my players. I told them that the game would be won by the team that has the strongest mentality. Not just about confidence, but who showed great concentration.”
A tight game played out with neither side finding the back of the net over 90 minutes of regulation time and a further 30 minutes of extra time. In the end, the Saudis prevailed in a penalty shootout, with Iranian defender Mohammad Khakpour missing the vital spot-kick.
That meant Saudi Arabia were in a record-breaking fourth successive AFC Asian Cup final, where they were to meet hosts the UAE. Led by Tomislav Ivic, someone Vingada knew well from his time working in Portugal, the task was never going to be straight forward.
Saudi Arabia, though, were on top for much of a disappointing game played out in front of a sold out Sheikh Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Hussein Abdulghani’s sending off for a second bookable offence seven minutes from the end of regulation time should have swung momentum in the UAE’s favour, but the Saudis seemed to grow stronger, even though they were unable to find a way through during what remained of the game.
Extra time was needed again, and a penalty shootout before – eventually – Khaled Al Muwalad hit the decisive spot-kick to seal a third title in four tournaments for Saudi Arabia.
“It was not a great game,” says Vingada. “But the history of any competition is made by the winners and losers and nobody remembers if you win by penalties or not. They remember also that Saudi Arabia was champion the last time in 1996. Since 1996 Saudi Arabia has not won the competition again.”
Victory earned Vingada a new contract, allowing the Portuguese to take the team into the qualifying rounds for the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, but it is his status as the first coach from his country to win a continental title that ranks among his proudest achievements.
“My first great achievement as a head coach was to be champion of Asia,” he says. “Portugal has two continental champions, Nelo Vingada in 1996 at the Asian Cup and Fernando Santos, coach of the European championships in 2016.
“Me, I am the first that reached that. At that time there were not many Portuguese coaches working around the world, now there is a lot of them. With this success I believe I started to open the door for what Portuguese coaches are doing now.”
For Saudi Arabia, the 1996 Asian Cup win marked the end of an era. While the nation qualified for the World Cup Finals again in 1998, 2002 and 2006 as well as in 2018, the continental title has eluded them since, despite appearances in the final in 2000 and 2007.
“The players loved the way we worked, the training we did,” says Vingada. “My training is based on using the ball and creating situations like they are in the game. I created a team and a family.
“It’s not easy to describe, it was a great moment. I was so happy, for me my family and for my staff but especially for my players. Everything that was managed they were the key to the success because they believed in me and they could express the talent they had.”
Photos: AFP, AFC
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