Football / World Cup USA '94: Saudis catch Belgium by surprise

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The Independent Online
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IN ONE of the great upsets of World Cup history, Saudi Arabia's footballing apprentices humiliated Belgium's band of experienced professionals here yesterday. The Saudis, relishing their first World Cup tournament qualification behind the Netherlands in Group F, now meet Sweden in Dallas on Sunday.

Belgium, hugely embarrassed after starting the day three points clear, were forced to wait to discover who they would play: Argentina or Germany - neither particularly inviting prospects. Paul van Himst's disappointing side had expected an undemanding lunchtime session against supposedly inferior opposition. Such a misguided belief was brutally undermined within five minutes of an absorbing match.

Many inspired goals have been registered in the 14 preceding tournaments, but Saeed Owairan's early match-winner deserves to be ranked alongside the very best - most notably Diego Maradona's second against England in 1986.

The Argentinian's strike arose after the stocky No 10 had dribbled past Stevens, Butcher and Fenwick; Owairan's went one better. Picking up possession in his own half, the Al Shabab midfielder manoeuvred at speed past Medved, De Wolf, Smidts and Albert before shooting from right to left past Michel Preud'homme from 15 yards.

Even some Belgians in the crowd stood to applaud Owairan's magnificent effort, although Van Himst's players' thoughts were probably best captured by a large banner on the half-way line reading: 'Jesus Christ'.

With faces as red as their shirts, the suddenly troubled Belgians attempted to extricate themselves from this unexpected mess. Enzo Scifo, the man they traditionally turn to when times are tense, assumed control but, for all his long passes and encouragement, he and his colleagues failed to dislodge a Saudi defence which stood as firm as a desert citadel.

Chances kept arising, but Belgium squandered them. Marc Wilmots, the Standard Liege striker, missed the best two in the first half, twice miscueing from close range following exceptional passes by Luc Nilis and Scifo.

The Saudis, coached by Jorge Solari, a member of Argentina's ugly 1966 team, pursued a practice of time-wasting after the break, an ill-received and odd strategy given the potency of their counter-attacks. Feigning injuries - stretchers appeared more regularly than in a Casualty episode - helped the clock tick down, although such a tactic was nearly rendered irrelevant by Hamzah Falatah in the 82nd minute. Tryting to emulate Owairan's goal, he too outstripped Belgium's last line of defence from the half-way line but was too casual with his chipped finish.

Belgium nearly returned to the top in the closing stages when Josip Weber twice headed over, but possession was not enough. The final whistle had the Belgians stamping the RFK turf in frustration and sent the Saudis into paroxysms of euphoria.

Solari said his team, especially the goalkeeper, Mohammad Al Deayea, had performed superbly in a 'fantastic game.' Asked about the prospect of Sweden, he said: 'They will be strong competition for us, but we are ready.'

BELGIUM (3-5-2): Preud'homme (Mechelen); Albert (Anderlecht), Smidts (Antwerp), De Wolf (Anderlecht); Medved, Staelens, Van der Elst (all Club Bruges), Scifo (Monaco), Boffin (Anderlecht); Degryse (Anderlecht), Wilmots (Standard Liege). Substitutes: Nilis (PSV Eindhoven) for Degryse, 23; Weber (Anderlecht) for Wilmots, 53.

SAUDI ARABIA (4-4-2): Al Deayea (Al Tai); Al Jibreen (Al Riyadh), Al Khilawi, Madani (both Al Ittihad), Al Jawad; Zebermawi (both Al Ahli), Al Bishi (Al Nasr), Saleh (Al Ahli), Owairan (Al Shabab); Abdullah Mohammed (Al Nasr), Falatah (Al Ohud). Substitutes: Al Muwallid (Al Ahli) for Abdullah Mohammed, h/t; Al Dosari (Al Ittifaq) for Owairan, 61.

Referee: H Krug (Germany).

(Photograph omitted)