The Match of Their Lives - Zuhair Bakheet (UAE)
Kuala Lumpur: Zuhair Bakheet was part of a golden generation of United Arab Emirates players that advanced to the country’s first and, to date, only FIFA World Cup and came within a penalty shootout of AFC Asian Cup glory on home soil.
Bakheet watched from the dugout as his international teammates took to the pitch to face Saudi Arabia at Zayed Sports City Stadium. For every single one of the 23 players dressed in white, whether on the field or on the bench, this was the game of their lives.
The UAE’s thrilling 1996 AFC Asian Cup campaign was culminating there, against a side that had appeared in each of the three previous finals of the competition, lifting the trophy in 1984 and 1988 before losing to Japan in 1992.
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The Emiratis, by way of contrast, had never reached a continental final, let alone win one. Four years earlier, they finished fourth in Japan, after losing to the same opponents, Saudi Arabia, in the semi-finals.
With the score locked at 0-0, UAE coach Tomislav Ivic summoned Bakheet from the bench at half-time.
The pacey forward’s impact on proceedings was clear from the start; within two minutes, winger Hassan Saeed had stolen the ball from the Saudi defence and supplied a back-heeled pass for Bakheet, who surged into the box and shot from a narrow angle.
His effort was blocked by goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea but fell into the path of Adnan Al Talyani. This was arguably the finest player the nation had ever produced, six yards out, the ball dropping to him with the keeper nowhere to be seen.
The 60,000 fans in the stands had started celebrating already when Al Talyani somehow managed to miscue his shot when it was much easier to score. As the game wore on, Saudi Arabia had their left-back Hussein Abdulghani sent off for deliberately handling the ball. It was a big boost for the hosts, who took the game to their opponents in extra-time in pursuit of a winner.
“We didn’t want the match to go all the way to a penalty shootout; Saudi Arabia were a man down and we felt we had a chance,” remembers Bakheet. “We were trained on penalties, but the Saudis had been to many finals, they had the experience. In 1988 they won the AFC Asian Cup on penalties too. So, psychologically they had an edge going into penalties.”
Although Bakheet was widely acknowledged as one of the best Emirati players of his generation, the then 29-year-old was not enjoying the best of campaigns on home soil. He had not scored a single goal and was eventually relegated to a substitute role come the final. His introduction injected new energy into the Whites’ attack, but there would ultimately be no goals for the UAE, nor for their visitors, at the end of 120 minutes.
It all came down to five attempts from 12 yards out for each side. When the list of penalty takers was handed to the referee, Bakheet’s name was absent. “I was asked to take a penalty kick, but I refused,” he explains, “I had not been lucky in front of goal all tournament, so I was not feeling in a position to have a go.”
Both sides were successful with their first penalties, and the Saudis scored their second. Al Deayea then saved from Yousef Saleh, but parity was soon restored after Ibrahim Mater missed the target and Khamees Saad converted for the Whites.
If Bakheet’s reason for not taking a penalty was his poor form in the tournament, his teammate Saeed was every bit in form, having netted three goals in the competition already. However, after Khalid Al Temawi had scored, the right winger’s attempt cannoned off the upright and went behind, meaning Khalid Al Muwallad’s composed finish was enough for Saudi Arabia to clinch their third AFC Asian Cup title.
It was heartbreak for the Emiratis as the nation’s golden generation, which had delivered historic FIFA World Cup qualification six years earlier, failed to crown their careers with the coveted continental trophy. Yet Bakheet has no regrets.
“I played in three AFC Asian Cup editions, but 1996 remains my favourite; we played at home and enjoyed the backing of everyone, from the top level of government, to the UAE FA officials and all the fans. Every Emirati across the country was behind us.”
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