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Asian Classics: Al Owairan recalls taking on the world

Riyadh: Not since DPR Korea's iconic victory over Italy in 1966 had an Asian side beaten a European one at a FIFA World Cup, but when Saeed Al Owairan's Saudi Arabia took on Belgium on June 29, 1994 something extraordinary happened.

While the West Asian nation had already made a name for themselves at the continental level, with two AFC Asian Cup titles in 1984 and 1988, they were largely considered minnows making their debut on the international stage, with a first FIFA World Cup appearance.

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Coming to America

With five different managers in two years, stability was an alien word for the Saudi team which arrived to the US under Argentine coach Jorge Solari - who had taken over just over two months prior to the start of the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

"I went into the 1994 FIFA World Cup as top scorer of all Qualifiers, not just the AFC Qualifiers. I had scored 18 goals," recalls forward Al Owairan, who would become the poster boy of Saudi Arabia's maiden FIFA World Cup campaign.

The Green Falcons were handed the challenge of 1988 European champions the Netherlands, for their opening match. Despite a narrow 2-1 defeat, the Saudis took huge confidence from that match, knowing they had managed to open the scoring and keep a side boasting the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Denis Bergkamp and the De Boer brothers at bay for over an hour.

Momentum from the Oranje clash carried on into the second clash, against fellow Arab nation Morocco. Again, the Saudis took an early lead, this time through Sami Al Jaber's spot-kick. And while Mohamed Chaouch equalised in the 26th minute, the Green Falcons battled back this time and Fouad Anwar struck from long range at the stroke of halftime to deliver Saudi Arabia's first-ever FIFA World Cup win.

“We faced the Netherlands in our first game; I thought I played well overall but we didn’t have many chances to score. Against Morocco in the second match, we won, but again I was unlucky not to find the back of the net."

With qualification to the round of 16 on the line, a win was needed against Belgium; who had achieved a 4th place finish in the competition just eight years earlier in Mexico. Al Owairan was still waiting for his own big moment.

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His moment came just five minutes into the game, the then Al Shabab attacker received the ball deep into Saudi Arabia's own half to launch a counter attack. With five Moroccan players, three teammates and upwards of 70 yards between him and the opposition goal, few people could have predicted what was about to happen next.

Al Owairan assessed his options and embarked on a mazy run, the ball seemingly glued to his boots as he rode off the challenges of Dirk Medved, Michel De Wolf and Rudi Smidts to arrive into the Belgian penalty box then slot home past goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme, treating the 53,000 fans present at Washington DC's RFK Stadium to the goal of the tournament.

“When the Belgium game came around, we started with a bang and as fate would have it, I scored one of the most beautiful goals in the history of the FIFA World Cup. I remember feeling on top of my game in that match and remember playing very well."

The 1994 campaign would turn out to be Saudi Arabia's finest moment at the world stage, as they advanced to the Round of 16 before bowing out to eventual bronze medallists Sweden. Al Owairan remains in awe of the memories even 26 years later.

"That Belgium match is one of those moments of my career that I can never forget. It is a game I am extremely proud of.

"This victory was a turning point, not just for Saudi football, but for Asian football as well. At the time, AFC had just two slots at the FIFA World Cup and we became the first Asian country to play in the Round of 16 since it’s introduction. By the time 1998 FIFA World Cup came around, Asia had four representatives.”

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