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World Cup's Greatest Goals: Saeed Al-Owairan (1994, SAUDI ARABIA vs. Belgium)


This week ESPN FC is counting down, in chronological order, 10 of the best goals to have been scored at the World Cup. We'll be bringing you two of the finest per day, but add your own and join the debate in our comments section or via the hashtag #FCWorldCupgoals. Users in the U.S. can watch each goal in the video above, but those outside please click here. At a continental level, Saudi Arabia had established themselves as a dominant force with triumphs in the 1984 and 1988 Asian Cups, while clinching a runner-up spot in 1992, but remained very much an unknown quantity as they made their World Cup debut as 500-to-1 outsiders in 1994. Having surprised Netherlands by taking the lead in their opening game, before succumbing to a late Gaston Taument goal to lose 2-1, Saudi Arabia then won their second match against Morocco. It was in their final group match against Belgium, however, that the Saudis made an indelible mark on USA '94. Just a few minutes into the game at Washington’s RFK Stadium, Saeed Al-Owairan picked up a pass in his own half and proceeded to dribble with carefree abandon. The Al-Shabab FC attacker used his pace to race beyond Dirk Medved, his skill to go around Michel De Wolf, and his persistence to get past Rudi Smidts before sliding a shot precisely beyond advancing goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme, having run almost 70 yards. It was to prove the game’s winning goal as Saudi Arabia advanced to the last-16 at their first ever finals. In his L.A. Times match report, Bill Plaschke wrote: “When Saeed Al-Owairan had finished a 65-yard run that will be relived for years, scoring a goal that children will be scoring in their back yards forever, he did the only appropriate thing. He saw the fans standing and screaming as if they had just seen a movie star. He saw that this was, after all, America. So instead of lifting his hands to Allah like his Saudi Arabian teammates, he ran to a corner of the field where he was by himself. Once there, he boogied.”

Lawrie Mifflin of the New York Times described it as “a solo goal whose artistry was worthy of Pele,” while Al-Owairan -- who would go on to be crowned Asian Footballer of the Year in 1994, chiefly in recognition of his wonder goal -- remarked: "It was the best goal I ever scored in my life. I scored it for every Saudi person in the world, for every Arab." While most sung the praises of Al-Owairan's attacking audacity, his Belgian opponents were more dismayed at their own defensive shortcomings. "We let him go, and go, and go, and go," Belgium captain Georges Grun -- an unused substitute for the game –- reflected afterwards. “Normally, a player cannot run that far. But nobody tackled him. We were too confident. We have to play harder." Belgium coach Paul van Himst echoed the sentiment, adding: “To be able to run through half the field and come to the goalkeeper like that -- it's not normal. I was very disappointed.” Neither Belgium nor Saudi Arabia would make any further impact on USA '94, losing to Germany and Sweden, respectively, in the last-16. But for Al-Owairan, the goal was life-changing. On his return to Saudi Arabia, he was gifted a Rolls-Royce, and the man by then nicknamed “Maradona of the Arabs” became a huge celebrity in his homeland. However, the fame and fortune proved a poisoned chalice. Courted by many European teams, Al-Owairan was unable to entertain their advances, much to his chagrin, because of a national law preventing footballers from plying their trade outside of Saudi Arabia. A desire for a more Western lifestyle caught up with the striker in 1996 when he was discovered enjoying alcohol and female company in Cairo’s red-light district during Ramadan. Al-Owairan was handed a jail term and suspended from playing football for a year, the latter of which he claimed was “the worst punishment I got.” His transgressions were eventually forgiven, and having been granted amnesty by King Fahd, Al-Owairan competed for Saudi Arabia at the 1998 World Cup. He was never to have the same impact in international football again, however, and before the tournament in France, the striker noted that his incredible goal against Belgium had been a double-edged sword. “In some ways, it was great. In other ways, it was awful,” he told reporters in 1998. “Because it put me in the spotlight, everybody was focusing on me. I have seen this goal maybe 1,000 times now, and I'm honestly fed up with it.”