- Al-Owairan’s effort came 6th in the World Cup’s ‘Goal of the Century’ vote
- It won him a Rolls-Royce and a nickname, ‘The Maradona of the Arabs’
- The Saudi icon was in jail just two years later
Having booked their places at Russia 2018 earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Belgium will have spent the time since dreaming of what next year’s finals might bring. Yet no matter how spectacular those FIFA World Cup™ adventures are, it is unlikely that either’s will include a goal as memorable as that which defined their 1994 campaigns.
Saudi Arabia were making their World Cup debut that year, while Belgium were tournament regulars and had reached the semi-finals eight years earlier. Les Diables Rouges also came into the pair's Washington showdown top of their group and on the verge of qualification, with two wins from two against Morocco and the Netherlands. But they would end the day having dropped from first place to third, all thanks to an unforgettable goal from one of the newcomers’ star players.
The Saudis, and Saeed Al-Owairan, had impressed in their opening two matches, losing narrowly to the Dutch before beating Morocco. But no-one could have expected the exhilarating 70-yard run and match-winning strike that followed against the Belgians. Just five minutes were on the clock when Al-Owairan gathered the ball deep in his own half and surged forward, showing a fine burst of pace to race between two challenges and advance over halfway towards the opposition box. As the crowd's roars grew, the Al-Shabab star then skipped skilfully around Michel De Wolf, bustled his way past the panicked Rudi Smidts and slid in to fire a shot high past Michel Preud'homme.
"It was the best goal I ever scored in my life,” Al-Owairan later reflected. “I scored it for every Saudi person in the world, for every Arab."
FIFA World Cup™ Goal of the Century: 2002 fan vote
- Diego Maradona (1986 vs England)
- Michael Owen (1998 vs Argentina)
- Pele (1958 vs Sweden)
- Diego Maradona (1986 vs Belgium)
- Gheorghe Hagi (1994 vs Colombia)
- Saeed Al-Owairan (1994 vs Belgium)
- Roberto Baggio (1990 vs Czechoslovakia)
- Carlos Alberto (1970 vs Italy)
- Lothar Matthaus (1990 vs Yugoslavia)
- Enzo Scifo (1990 vs Uruguay)
Naturally, the Belgians – beaten 1-0 by the Saudis and pipped to second place on goals scored – had a different, less positive take on the goal that wowed the watching world. "We let him go, and go, and go, and go," lamented captain Georges Grun. Coach Paul van Himst added: “Normally, a player cannot run that far. But nobody tackled him. To be able to run through half the field and come to the goalkeeper like that... it's not normal.”
The goal immediately propelled Al-Owairan to stardom. Bestowed with the nickname ‘The Maradona of the Arabs’, the then 26-year-old was presented with a Rolls-Royce on his return to Saudi Arabia and became a national icon. But the adulation and attention also brought its problems, and just two years after USA 1994 Al-Owairan was serving a jail term and had been banned from football for a year after falling foul of the Saudi authorities.
“Because [the goal] put me in the spotlight, everybody was focusing on me,” he said. “In some ways it was great, in others it was awful. I have seen this goal maybe 1,000 times now, and I'm honestly fed up with it.”
The scorer may have grown tired of his World Cup wonder strike, but Saudi fans are unlikely to feel the same. No matter how many times it is replayed, and no matter what their team achieves in Russia, those supporters will always hold a special place for Al-Owairan’s magic run.