World Cup Tales: Arabian Disco (1994)


United States, 1994

If 1990 was a rebirth for football in Europe, then 1994 signaled a new awakening across the Atlantic. Despite a perceived lack of interest in the sport across the pond, the United States narrowly edged out Morocco in the voting to host the tournament, and FIFA began to lick their lips and count the potential windfall of taking football’s biggest prize to America. Ahead of the competition there were rumours abound that FIFA would be forced to introduce rule changes to the game in order to make it more US audience friendly, including helmets for goalkeepers, and enlarging goals, though it transpired these were gross exaggerations aimed at a country which seemed foreign as far as the world football landscape was concerned.

The tournament opened in typically American fashion, all bells and whistles, and even produced its first iconic moment in the opening ceremony, when soul singer Diana Ross shanked a penalty wide of an exploding goal before continuing to mime badly. Not only would that first action of the 1994 World Cup prove one of its most enduring images, it also transpired to be eerily prescient. As usual there were new faces on display, with Greece, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria all making their debut appearances at a World Cup, with the African confederation afforded an extra qualification place thanks to Cameroon’s showing in 1990. The Indomitable Lions and their flamboyant veteran striker Roger Milla, now aged 42, were back on the biggest stage, while Morocco completed the trio of CAF participants. England failed to qualify in their first campaign post-Bobby Robson, while Wales were within the width of a crossbar from beating Romania to a place at the finals, but as it was Norway and Romania qualified at their expense. With none of the home nations making it to America, it fell to neighbours Ireland to bring a little joy to the United Kingdom. Bolivia made a rare appearance at a World Cup finals, their first since 1950, thanks in part to Chile’s continued ban from qualifying due to goalkeeper Roberto Rojas’ antics in the 1990 CONMEBOL campaign.

Hosting games at altitude undoubtedly helped the Bolivians, who edged out Uruguay to secure their place in the opening game of the tournament – a typically dreary affair in which Germany ran out 1-0 winners. The Germans would go on to top Group C fairly comfortably, with a draw against runners up Spain the only blot on the copy book, despite South Korea giving them a scare in the final group game. Far more exciting was Group A, containing the hosts, Pele’s tip for the tournament Colombia, dark horses Romania and Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland. Disaster struck for the Colombians in their opening match, as Gheorghe Hagi and Florin Răducioiu ran them ragged, and Romania cruised to a 3-1 victory. By half-time in their second game against the United States, Colombia were on their way out – an Andreas Escobar own goal giving the hosts a lead that would ultimately see them win. For Escobar, his on-field discretion would prove fatal. Weeks later he was shot outside a bar in his hometown of Medellin. The other three sides in Group A all progressed to the second round.

1990s cult heroes Cameroon were hoping to build on their performance in Italy, but faced a tough task in Group B with Brazil, Sweden and Russia. An entertaining 2-2 draw with the Swedes in their opening game would prove to be their only point of a tournament, as a 3-0 defeat to Brazil was followed by a 6-1 walloping at the hands of the Russians, for whom Oleg Salenko scored five. On the plus side, Roger Milla broke his own record as the oldest scorer at the World Cup. Brazil comfortably topped the group, and were joined in the knockouts by Sweden. It wasn’t all bad news for Africa, though, as Nigeria opened their World Cup account with a resounding 3-0 win against a Bulgaria side containing the mercurial talents of Hristo Stoichkov, and despite losing to Argentina, victory over whipping boys Greece saw the Super Eagles top the group. The biggest story of the group, however, was the suspension of Diego Maradona, who tested positively for the use of a banned substance after Argentina’s 4-0 victory over Greece, during which the insane genius scored a wondergoal, before aggressively eyeballing the camera like a city boy pushing into the queue at a kebab house in Shoreditch at two in the morning.

The opening game in Group E, staged at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, became a celebration of American immigration, as Italy faced the Republic of Ireland and 75,000 supporters crammed in to cheer on the countries of their ancestors. Glaswegian Ray Houghton scored the only goal to produce the first major shock of the tournament, and set Ireland on their way to the knockout stages. They were joined by both Italy and Mexico, with poor old Norway losing out on goal difference, after all four sides finished on four points. Group F pitted neighbours Netherlands and Belgium against Morocco and new boys Saudi Arabia, and was an open affair right to the last game, with everyone but Morocco taking points from one another. The Dutch secured their place as group winners with a 2-1 win against Morroco while, in Washington, a magical moment appeared from nowhere.

Having narrowly lost to the Netherlands and beaten Morocco, Saudi Arabia knew that a win against already qualified Belgium would ensure their place in the second round, making them the first team from the Middle East to progress past the groups. While most qualified teams might use the final group game as an opportunity to rest key players and give squad members a run out, Belgium coach Paul Van Himst had other ideas, and if Saudi were to get out of the group they’d have to do it the hard way, up against a team including the likes of Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots and Michel Preud’homme. Fortunately it didn’t take them long to make a mark on the game, and it remains one of the most famous moments in Middle Eastern football. Picking up the ball deep in his own half, Saudi midfielder Saeed Al-Owairan began charging towards the Belgian backline. Having ridden two challenges forty yards from goal, Al-Owairan skipped over a lunge from Michel De Wolf before turning Rudi Smidts inside out. With Preud’homme racing off his line, the diminutive schemer arced his back before sliding into the shot and lifting the ball into the top corner. It was a goal from practically nothing, a goal of outstanding skill, balance and determination, a goal that secured Saudi’s place in the second round. And a goal that, understandably, went to the scorer’s head.

Much later, after returning home from the tournament, Al-Owairan was enjoying the fame and adulation that his spectacular goal had attracted. Plenty of European clubs enquired about securing his services, but the Saudi Arabian FA forbade homegrown players from moving abroad. Slowly but surely, he began to rebel against the Islamic law that Saudi Arabia is run under, first by rebelling against the wishes of his club manager and taking an unauthorised two week break in Morocco, and then in 1996 when he was caught drinking with non-Saudi women – a crime in the eyes of the Saudi police. Al-Owairan’s punishment was a year’s ban from football, along with a six month stretch in a detention centre. He finally returned to the Saudi Arabia national team in December 1997, but was nowhere near the player he was previously.

In 1994, however, Al-Owairan and Saudi Arabia marched on to the second round, where they were handsomely beaten by the ever-improving Swedes. The Republic of Ireland and Nigeria, too, were ousted, by the Netherlands and Italy respectively, but Romania produced the second big shock of the tournament as Ilie Dumitrescu inspired a breathtaking victory over Argentina in the game of the tournament. The surprises wouldn’t stop there either, with holders Germany knocked out in the quarter finals by the unfancied Bulgarians thanks to a couple of spectacular goals from Stoichkov and Yordan Letchkov in the final fifteen minutes. Romania were finally seen off in a penalty shootout by Sweden, while Brazil and Netherlands produced a thrilling quarter-final, with the Dutch coming back from 2-0 down, only for a howitzer from Branco to secure the win for Brazil. By the semi-finals it was clear that the surprise packages of the tournament were beginning to wither, and despite putting up a good fight, both Sweden and Bulgaria looked shattered against their more illustrious opposition. Fittingly, Romario and Roberto Baggio, the two biggest stars of the tournament, scored the goals to set up a final between Brazil and Italy, a re-run of the 1970 final, and a face-off between the two most accomplished teams in the tournament.

Unfortunately, the final was anything but exciting. Played in the stifling midday sun in Pasadena, chances for both sides were few and far between, and the spectre of a penalty shootout deciding the winners of the World Cup for the very first time loomed large on the horizon. After misses from Franco Baresi and Daniele Massaro, it fell to Roberto Baggio, the Divine Ponytail, to keep Italy’s World Cup hopes alive from the spot. And as the ball flew over the bar and the Brazilian players and fans began celebrating, the camera focused on Baggio, perhaps the greatest player in the world at the time, as he stood motionless, undoubtedly thinking ‘now I know how Diana Ross felt’.

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