The eyes of an entire continent fixated on Doha. There, three matches – Iraq-Japan, Korea Republic-Korea DPR and Saudi Arabia-Iran – would determine which duo represented Asia at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™.
Incredibly, five of the six sides went into the final round’s concluding matchday, 20 years ago to this Monday, with realistic hope of kicking the adidas Questra around Stateside. Japan and Saudi Arabia, the only members of the sextet to have never appeared at the World Cup, were locked on five points, with Korea Republic, Iraq and Iran all on four. Only Korea DPR, on two, were out of the running.
Football’s popularity had exploded earlier that year in Japan, due to the launch of the J.League and its seduction of standouts such as Careca, Ramon Diaz, Mario Amoroso and Zico, and the finest spell of form in the national’s team’s history. The Samurai Blue had, indeed, won 11, drawn two and lost just one of their one of their previous 14 matches, keeping an admirable ten clean sheets in the process.
The thousands of Japanese who had descended on the Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium had merely five minutes to wait for more cause for celebration, Kazu Miura heading home the deadlock-breaker. That ensured Hans Ooft's charges won the first half 1-0, while a Sami Al Jaber lob and a thumping drive from Fahad Al Mehallel sent Saudi Arabia in at the break leading Iran 2-1. Korea Republic and Korea DPR, for their part, went in goalless.
Had the scores at the break stood, the final standings would have read as follows: Japan (7 points, +4 goal difference, qualified), Saudi Arabia (7, +2, qualified), Korea Republic (5, +2), Iraq (4, -1), Iran (4, -3), Korea DPR (3, -4).
The South Koreans had it all to do, but the qualification picture was transformed in their favour within ten minutes of the restarts. Taking care of their own business, a Ko Jung-Woon header and Hwang Seon-Hong strike flung the Taeguk Warriors into a 2-0 lead. Meantime, Radhi Shenaishil levelled for Iraq, while Saudi Arabia now led Iran 4-3.
Suddenly, Korea Republic were on course to pip Japan to World Cup place on goal difference. And it got worse for the Japanese at around the 75-minute mark. As they struggled to break down a rigid Iraqi rearguard, the Saudis went 4-2 up – all but ensuring their progression – and Ha Seok-Ju made it 3-0 to the South Koreans.
Japan’s situation was effectively straightforward: they had 15 minutes to turn a draw into a win or else they’d be watching USA 1994 from 10,000-plus kilometres across the Pacific. Five minutes later, the Samurai Blue appeared to have done that, with Masashi Nakayama somehow scraping the ball under the keeper Ibrahim Salim to make it 2-1.
As the clocks hit 90 at the three stadiums, Japan and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of finally earning an invite to football’s most prestigious party. The twists were not, however, over in Doha. First, Javad Manafi pulled one back for Iran, leaving Saudi Arabia hanging on by a thread. Then disaster struck for Japan. Ala Kadhim conned his marker down the right and crossed for Jaffar Salman to head home Iraq’s second equaliser of the game. The Japanese players instantly slumped to the turf, heads in hands, some in tears. When they finally did return to their feet, they barely had time to kick-off before the final whistle definitively extinguished their hopes.
The South Koreans, who had won 3-0, were huddled together, believing the Japanese were leading 2-1. When news filtered through to them that the final score at the Hamad bin Khalifa Stadium was 2-2, it sparked delirious scenes. Korea Republic would be joining Saudi Arabia in the USA.
"I can't remember the changing room after the game, or speaking to the media afterward, or the bus ride back to the hotel,” recalled Japan midfielder Hajime Moriyasu. “I had devoted myself to my World Cup dream. We had so many training camps that I spent more time with my team-mates than with my family. I could see the World Cup right in front of me but when I went to grab it, it vanished into thin air.”
Nakayama added: “We’d been winning, playing so well, and there was so much belief in our team. Football had reached this new level and the Japanese people were so excited about playing at the World Cup. I thought I’d scored the goal to take us there. We were counting down the moments. For the dream to end, and the way it did, was devastating. I saw grown men cry.”