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The number 10 picks up the ball in his own half, proceeds to storm past one stunned opposition defender after another, before tucking the ball past a helpless, advancing goalkeeper.
No, it’s not the one that comes straight too mind. This solo effort was not the fabled one by Diego Maradona against England at Mexico ‘86, but by Saudi striker Saeed Al-Owairan against Belgium eight years later in the US.
The astonishing goal that delivered Saudi Arabia’s first ever World Cup win remains a curiosity, at once widely lauded and yet in some quarters, strangely derided. Just why does it remain so misunderstood?
Perhaps the comparison with Maradona does it few favors. After all, El Diego’s goal against England is widely acknowledged in football folklore as the greatest ever scored, and Argentina went on to lift the trophy for a second time by beating West Germany 3-2 in Mexico City.
While Al-Owairan’s goal, like most others, can hardly compete with such a legacy, it does have its own rich story and context.
For a start, it came at Saudi Arabia’s first ever World Cup participation, having watched neighbors Kuwait, in 1982, Iraq (1986) and the UAE (1990) beat them to such a feat. But World Cup qualification for Saudi Arabia was an idea whose time had finally come.
The Kingdom had won the AFC Asian Cup in 1984, 1988 and finished as runners up to hosts Japan in 1992. A trip to USA ‘94 was a natural progression, though few gave the team any hope of progressing to the knockout rounds when they were placed in a group with the Netherlands, Belgium and serial African qualifiers Morocco. Saudi, it was lazily assumed, were happy to just be there.
In reality, Argentine coach Jorge Solari’s men had a few secret weapons. One of them, it would be proven, was Al-Owairan.
In America, things started out as expected for the Saudis.
On June 20, 1994, against a formidable Dutch team that included the likes of Ronald Koeman, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Frank Rijkaard and the De Boer twins Frank and Ronald, Saudi took a shock 18th minute lead thanks to Fuad Anwar’s textbook header, and playing with a lot of confidence, held out to the second half.
However, goals by Wim Jonk five minutes after the real and substitute Gaston Taument on 70 minutes ensured the Dutch were not embarrassed at RFK Stadium in Washington DC.
Saudi Arabia’s performance in their first ever World Cup match had exceeded expectations, but few could have predicted how the rest of their Group F matches would go.
Five days later, an early penalty by Sami Al-Jaber and a long-range winner by Anwar ensured a historic 2-1 win over Morocco at Giants Stadium; at long last, a team from the GCC had recorded a World Cup victory. And it meant, that this underdog Saudi team could, incredibly, still qualify for the second round of the competition.
The only problem was that a confident Belgium, who had already beaten both the Netherlands and Morocco, stood in their way. Enter Saeed Al-Owairan.
In front of 52,000 fans at a scorching RFK Stadium, the Belgians did not know what hit them.
Only five minutes into the match, he received the ball midway through the Saudi half. There looked little that he could do.
Then he embarked on the run of his life.
First, he slalomed between a complacent Franky And Der Elst and the diving Dirk Medved, buying himself a few yards of space in the middle of the Belgium half.
But there was still plenty to do for him to get anywhere near goal; at this point there looked no clear danger yet.
What followed turned a promising run into one of the greatest goals the World Cup has ever seen, and arguably the standout strike of USA ‘94.
As Al-Owairan arrowed forward, Michel De Wolf offered an apology of a tackle that the Saudi number 10 easily hurdled away from. Only a clearly disorientated Rudi Smidts stood between Al-Owairan and the Belgian goalkeeper now, and the ball somehow seemed to ghost through the stumbling defender.
Suddenly, World Cup immortality was there for the taking for the exciting Saudi striker. And it was an opportunity he would not let slip.
From almost the exact spot that Maradona approached England goalkeeper Peter Shilton nearly eight years prior in Mexico, Al-Owairan was now face to face with Belgium’s number 1 Michel Preud’Homme.
But instead of taking an extra touch to beat the keeper, Al-Owairan gloriously finished into the roof of the net. Saudi, with six points on the board as things stood, were suddenly heading to a remarkable qualification to the round of 16 at the World Cup, something no Gulf or Middle Eastern team had ever achieved.
There were still 85 minutes to negotiate, but the stunned Belgians had no answer to Al-Owairan’s moment of magic. At the final whistle, the heroic Saudi players in the US capital could barely suppress their joy, and neither could the celebrating masses back home.
Sweden awaited Saudi in the lockout stages, and the Kingdom would end up qualifying for the next three World Cups. But this remains arguably the country’s greatest football moment.
So why does Al-Owairan’s goal still divide opinion?
Perhaps that aesthetically, with the ball bobbling on several occasions, it compares unfavorably with the seamless perfection of Maradona’s masterpiece. Maybe because Belgium’s defenders could not have been more accommodating, though the same can be said of England’s in Mexico. Or, ultimately, it was not scored by the greatest footballer of all time.
Still, it remains one of the greatest goals ever scored at football’s ultimate stage. That, you cannot take away from Al-Owairan, or Saudi Arabia.
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