Saudi Arabia's hopes of a fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup™ appearance were dashed on 9 September, as neighbouring Bahrain snatched a dramatic injury-time equaliser in the second leg of their Asian Zone play-off to remain in contention for a place at next year's finals.
The hosts took the lead after just 12 minutes at the King Fahd International Stadium courtesy of a superb Nasser Al Shamrani goal, before the visitors equalised through Jaycee John five minutes before the break.
And as the showdown entered injury time after 90 minutes had been played, it was Bahrain who remained on course for an inter-confederation play-off with Oceania champions New Zealand for a place at South Africa 2010. However, a dramatic Hamad Al Montashari goal in the first minute of stoppage time looked to have secured an historic triumph for the Kingdom.
Yet with the home fans still celebrating and the seconds ticking away, the visitors won a corner which Salman Isa swung perfectly into the box for substitute Ismail Abdullatif to head home and send his side through on away goals. For the inconsolable Saudis, the result sees them miss out on world football's showpiece event for the first time since their maiden appearance in 1994.
At those very finals in the USA, the team from the Kingdom surprised many by making it to the second round with victories over Morocco and Belgium, and have been ever-present at Planet Football's biggest table ever since.
As reigning Asian champions, Sami Al-Jaber and Co headed for France 1998 looking to build on their USA 1994 success but ended up on the first flight home after taking a solitary point from three group games. Worse was to follow in 2002 and 2006, where they would endure another six games without a win, to say nothing of the 8-0 drubbing at the hands of Germany in Sapporo, Japan.
A wobbly South Africa 2010 qualification campaign saw the Saudi camp hit by a series of coaching casualties in the space of a few months. After the regional giants had made a promising start to the final qualifying round with a 2-0 win over Singapore under then coach Helios dos Anjos, they then suffered a shock 3-0 reverse to Uzbekistan. Despite back-to-back wins against lowly Lebanon, the beleaguered Brazilian boss' contract was terminated in June 2008.
Local tactician Nasser Al Johar, who had led the team to Korea/Japan 2002, took over provisionally for the rest of the qualifiers, becoming the country's 19th coach since 1994. But with four matches remaining, Al Johar quit in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Korea DPR, which left them second from bottom in Group 2.
Stepping into the breach was Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro who started up with a precious 2-1 victory away to Iran and a 3-2 home win against the Saudis' regional rivals UAE. However, a pair of disappointing 0-0 draws against Korea DPR and Korea Republic followed which meant they had to settle for a play-off showdown against Bahrain.
After the heartbreak of missing out in such dramatic fashion on next year's FIFA World Cup finals, there has been speculation in the local media that Peseiro too will be ushered to the exit door. However, Saudi Football Association President Prince Sultan bin Fahd has insisted that FA officials will not be making any snap decisions.
"We could have avoided being in the play-off and even the final result, but we just didn't perform well when we had to," he said. "I hope we can avoid such mistakes in the future. We don't want to rush into taking a hasty decision about the future of the coach. It's illogical to sack the technical staff after each defeat."
For his part, former Sporting Lisbon supremo Peseiro has accepted full responsibility for the play-off reverse: "It's very sad to miss a chance to play in the World Cup. We failed to make the most of many scoring opportunities. The first-half equaliser turned the match on its head."
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