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Classic Qualifiers: Saudi Arabia v Bahrain, 2009

Kuala Lumpur: As the countdown to Wednesday’s Asian Qualifiers draw for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 continues, takes a look back at another great qualifying match of the past.

Few qualifiers in history have produced the drama seen in the World Cup qualifying play-off between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in September 2009, where it took until the final seconds to decide the final Asian playoff.

The backstory

A continental heavyweight at both club and international level, and regular contenders in all major competitions, it is no exaggeration to say Saudi Arabia came into the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010 with an expectation of success.

The Green Falcons hadn’t missed a World Cup since 1990, had only lost three of their previous 50 World Cup qualifiers, and had reached the final of the AFC Asian Cup in Southeast Asia just weeks before the first of the Asian qualifiers for 2010 began.

Early indications were good for Saudi Arabia, who breezed the opening group stage with five wins from six matches, but defeats against Korea Republic and DPR Korea put their campaign in jeopardy, leading to the appointment of Portuguese coach José Peseiro.

Peseiro - a former Real Madrid assistant who had led Sporting Lisbon to the 2005 UEFA Cup Final – oversaw a revival which featured a crucial 2-1 win against Islamic Republic of Iran at the Azadi Stadium, although the team’s final position of third was only good enough for a playoff after they were disappointingly held to a scoreless draw by DPR Korea in their final group stage match.

While Saudi Arabia were World Cup regulars, Bahrain had never qualified, although they had gone agonisingly close to reaching the 2006 edition in Germany.

A year after a best-ever showing at the AFC Asian Cup, Bahrain went all the way to the final Inter-Confederation playoff against Trinidad and Tobago in late 2005, before losing 2-1 on aggregate having taken the lead late in the first leg in Port of Spain.

Bahrain reached the business end of 2010 qualifying with little fuss under Czech coach Milan Mačala. but they found trouble in the final group stage with just one point from their first three matches.

A sensational stoppage-time free-kick in Uzbekistan from Muharraq’s 2008 AFC Cup winner Mahmood Abdulrahman turned their campaign around, before the man known as Ringo scored once more against the same opposition four months later to seal their place in the playoff.

The matches

The two-legged playoff was held over the space of four days in September, with the losers to be eliminated and the winners to advance to the same Inter-Confederation playoff stage which had brought Bahrain undone four years prior.

Saudi Arabia may have had history on their side but, powered by a strong team featuring the likes of Syed Mohamed Adnan, Jaycee John and Salman Isa, Bahrain came into the playoff one place ahead of their neighbours in the FIFA rankings and fresh from a confidence-boosting 4-2 friendly win over Iran.

That confidence was evident in the first leg in Riffa, but despite a regular attacking threat underlined by no less than 18 Bahraini corner kicks, the hosts failed to find a way past Saudi goalkeeper Waleed Ali and the match finished 0-0.

Mačala felt that the result would make life difficult for his side in the second leg in Riyadh, while Peseiro baulked at suggestions Bahrain had been the better side, saying “how could they be better and not win the match?”

In any case, the stage was set for a 90-minute showdown in Saudi Arabia, where it would be what happened after the clock struck 90 minutes that would go down in history.

In front of 50,000 fans, and in searing 39 degree heat, Saudi Arabia took an early lead when Al Shabab goal machine Nasser Al Shamrani applied the finishing touch to a beautiful team move, but John levelled just before half time to put Bahrain ahead on away goals.

From a Saudi point of view, the second-half minutes mercilessly ticked by and the King Fahd International Stadium drew increasingly anxious as they edged closer and closer to missing a World Cup for the first time in 20 years.

Just when it all hope seemed lost, the venue burst into life in the first minute of stoppage time, as former AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari ventured forward to head in an intelligent, improvised cross from Yasser Al Qahtani when the danger appeared to have passed.

After 90 minutes of nerve-shredding tension, Saudi Arabia had found the goal they needed to keep their dream of a fifth successive World Cup alive, and the stadium continued to rock as Bahrain now poured forward in search of a winner of their own.

The visitors won a corner, and with the clock nearing 93 minutes, Salman Isa took it as quickly as possible, sending the ball firmly into the Saudi penalty area, where substitute Ismael Abdullatif (pictured below, right) rose unchecked to head the ball into the bottom corner of Ali’s net.

Just 120 seconds after Al Montashari had broken Bahraini hearts, Saudi Arabia had been dealt an even crueller blow and their World Cup campaign, in the blink of an eye, was over.

The job wasn’t done yet, but as far as Mačala was concerned; Bahrain had delivered a performance worthy of a place in South Africa.

"We faced one of the strongest teams in the region and we played this crucial match in front of the Saudi fans,” he said.

“We were lucky to score in the last minute, but we really deserve to reach the World Cup Finals.”

The aftermath

Bahrain had pulled off one of the more remarkable wins in the history of the Asian Qualifiers, but that was where the glory ended for Mačala’s men, who once again fell at the final World Cup hurdle, this time against Oceania champions New Zealand.

After a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Riffa, the All Whites claimed a 1-0 aggregate win that ended Bahrain’s journey in anguish, and the nation continues to dream of a first FIFA World Cup qualification.

Mačala steered Bahrain through qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup before leaving the role in 2010, while goal-scoring hero Ismael Abdullatif went on to earn more than 100 caps, score 39 goals and appear in three AFC Asian Cups before his final international match in 2017.

Peseiro remained in the role of Saudi Arabia head coach until the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar, where he was relieved of his duties mid-tournament after a 2-1 defeat to Syria.

Saudi Arabia failed to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, winning just one of six matches as they were eliminated more than two years before the tournament began, but the Green Falcons returned to the world stage at Russia 2018, where they earned their first World Cup victory in 24 years against Egypt.

Photos: AFP