Asia's final qualifying group for USA 1994, where the six top teams battled against each other for the continent's two places at the FIFA World Cup™, has starkly different resonances for the nations involved.
For Japan, the competition staged in Qatar's capital is still remembered as the 'Agony of Doha', where they were denied their first appearance at a FIFA World Cup by a resilient Iraq, when Jaffar Omran Salman managed an equalizer deep into stoppage time in their final match.
At the same time, a rampant Saudi Arabia overcame Iran 4-3 in a thrilling game, a result which saw the Desert Sons finish top of the six-team lineup to book their maiden appearance at the global showpiece. Join FIFA.com for a closer look at one of the most enthralling qualifiers in Asia's history.
28 October 1993, Al Khalifa Stadium, Doha
Saudi Arabia 4-3 Iran
Scorers: Saudi Arabia (Sami Al Jaber 21, Fahad Al Muhallal 27, Mansoor Al Mousa 47, Hamza Flaitih 74). Iran (Mehdi Fonoonizadeh 43, 52, Javad Manafi 90)
Saudi Arabia: Mohammed Al Daeyea(GK), Ahmed Madani, Abdullah Al Dossary, Fouad Amin Anwar, Mohammed Al Khlaiwi, Mansoor Al Moeineh, Mohammed Abdul Jawad, Khalid Misaad Al Muwallad, Hamaza Flaitih, Sami Al Jaber, Fahad Al Muhallal
Iran: Behzad Gholampour, Nader Mohammedkhani, Javad Zarincheh, Reza Hassanzadeh, Mohamed Rezaei-Manfesh, Mehdi Fonoonizadeh, Hamid Darakhshan, Mehdi Abtahi, Amir Ghalenoei, Behzad Dadashzadeh, Ali Daei
Saudi Arabia entered the qualifying campaign in Doha as one of Asia's rising powers, who had proved more than capable of mounting a serious challenge against traditional heavyweights like Korea Republic and Iran.
Despite their status as relatively late starters in the game, with their Football Association founded only in 1959, Saudi Arabia's football developed at a remarkable speed. Their first continental title arrived in 1984, when they defeated China 2-0 in that year's AFC Asian Cup final. They further cemented their place at the top by successfully defending the crown four years later, with a victory over Korea Republic in a penalty shootout.
After their Asian conquests, Saudi Arabia, under coach Mohammed Al Kharashi, were looking to make a mark on the global stage. The qualifying competition for USA 1994 provided them with the chance they had been wanting for.
Going into the last round, Japan and Saudi Arabia were locked level at the top of the section on five points from the opening four games, with the East Asians ahead on goal difference. The pack was chasing at the heels of the two leaders, however, with Korea Republic, Iraq and Iran all only one point adrift. With only the top two finishers progressing, the final game was a must-win for both Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Iran had been dominant in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, during which they won the AFC Asian Cup three consecutive times, and qualified for the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina. The 1980s saw Saudi Arabia emerge as the new power, and en route to their two Asian titles, they had twice prevailed over Iran, winning after a penalty shootout at Singapore 1984 before claiming a 1-0 victory four years later in Doha.
The present encounter marked their third meeting in a major international competition, and it was coach Al Kharashi's charges that went into the 'Doha re-match' with a psychological edge.
Playing in front of a crowd of over 20,000, in which the Saudi fans outnumbered the Iranian faithful, Saudi Arabia opened brightly, taking the the lead after 21 minutes through Sami Al Jaber. Fahad Al Muhallal doubled the advantage only six minutes later.
Just as the Saudis seemed to be cruising, Team Melli struck
back, Mehdi Fonoonizadeh pulling one back for Iran on the stroke of
the half time.
However, Saudi Arabia picked up where they left off after the interval, as Mansoor Al Mousa scored two minutes into the second half to restore their two-goal lead.
Fonoonizadeh proved to be the thorn in the Saudis' side again when he reduced the deficit by scoring his second five minutes later. However, Hamza Flaitih netted Saudi Arabia's fourth on 74 minutes to put the game beyond doubt, with Javad Manafi scoring a late consolation goal for Iran.
This qualifying campaign for USA 1994 saw the emergence of three of Asia's iconic players, who would maintain their stellar status for over a decade. All of them started in this match, but it was Sami Al Jaber, only 20 years old, who opened the scoring for Saudi Arabia and showed glimpses of the predatory genius in front of goal that would make him such an admired figure in Asian football in the years to come.
"It is one of these unforgettable games. I believe it was one of the most important moments in history of Asian football because it was the first time we reached the finals of the World cup and since then we have not missed a single tournament I played an exceptional game and was able to help my team in this historic victory. No Saudi can ever forget this match." Saudi player Sami Al Jaber
"The day should be a holiday in our history, We finally reached the World cup finals. We put in a tremendous effort and we always kept faith that we would win," Saudi scorer Hamza Flaitih
What happened next...
Following this memorable victory, Saudi Arabia had a dream debut in the following year's FIFA World Cup finals in the USA, where they stormed into the second round. This tremendous success kick-started Saudi Arabia's all-conquering period in Asian FIFA World Cup qualifying; impressively, they have qualified for every single edition of the tournament since 1994.
Iran, who were then in the rebuilding process after the Gulf War, had gained precious international experience and exposure during the campaign. They proved to be Asia's most consistent performers in the next few years, and their progress culminated in qualification for France 1998 four years later, when they eliminated Australia in a two-leg playoff.
The two sides have now developed a familiar rivalry, especially in FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They met four times on the road to France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, claiming a win each, with two games ending in draws. The battles between these two, now regarded as the leading sides in West Asia, are always tight, tense and furiously competitive.