In 2022, the World Cup arrives in the Gulf area for the first time. Qatar is hosting the World Cup 40 years after a country from this region, Kuwait, participated for the first time in the most important football competition.
At the World Cup that they organize, Qatar is the only debutante. The host of the competition thus becomes the fifth Arab country from the Gulf area to be present at the final tournament, after Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. With the exception of the 1994 edition, in which the Saudis managed to get past the group stage, the participation of these countries in the World Cup was nothing remarkable. Speaking in football terms, in 1982 Kuwait provided a moment in history for all the wrong reasons.
The Valladolid scandal
21st of June 1982. After an encouraging 1-1 draw with Czechoslovakia, the Kuwait national team met one of the favorites of the World Cup in Spain, a France team led by Michel Platini and which included, among others, Manuel Amoros, Marius Trésor, Alain Giresse, Jean Gypsy or Dominique Rocheteau. Despite the clear difference in value, “Les Bleus” needed more than half an hour to score. But once the score was opened, the Europeans broke away quickly. In the 48th minute, it was already 3-0, and the match was headed for a natural conclusion.
A quarter of an hour before the end, Abdullah Al-Buloushi reduced the difference. The fact that a debutant with no great skills scored against a favorite was a bonus for the national team prepared by the future world champion Carlos Alberto Parreira. After just a few minutes, France broke away to 3 goals again after Giresse scored. But the Kuwaiti players protested vehemently, claiming they stopped after hearing a whistle from the stands which they mistook for Soviet referee Miroslav Stupar.
Things degenerated and Sheikh Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, brother of the Emir of Kuwait and president of the country’s football federation, took to the pitch to protest. After a good few minutes of discussion, Stupar decided to cancel the goal of the French, surprised by the fact that the center changed the decision. It didn’t matter much, because, in the end, it ended 4-1, a result set by Maxime Bossis.
Kuwait also lost their last group match, 0-1 against England, and has not returned to the World Cup since.
The controversy from Toluca
Iraq reached the World Cup for the first and only time in 1986. This was despite playing their home qualifying matches on the neutral ground due to the conflict with Iran. In Mexico, the Iraqis were drawn into a group with host country Belgium, who would reach the semi-finals, and Paraguay. No surprise that they finished in last place with 0 points. But the balance sheet could have been different, without a controversial decision of the referee in the debut match.
On June 4, 1986, in Toluca, Iraq drew against Paraguay. In fact, he had the biggest opportunities. The South Americans, however, were more cynical and opened the scoring in the 35th minute through Julio César Romero, who at the time was making waves in Brazil at Fluminense and later played briefly at FC Barcelona. At the end of the first part, after another opportunity of the Asian national team, it benefited from a corner. Referee Edwin Picon-Ackong, from Mauritius, allowed the corner kick to be taken, but while the ball was in the air, he blew the whistle for the end of the half, although the Iraqis managed to score, through Ahmed Radhi. Despite the protests, the central kept its decision and the result remained unchanged until the end.
Radhi had a pale consolation in the next match, against Belgium. He scored in the defeat suffered against the “Red Devils”, scoring 1-2, which would remain the only Iraqi goal at the World Cup. Iraq ended its participation in Mexico with another narrow 0-1 defeat against the hosts.
A historic gap. And a broken promise
In 1990, Carlos Alberto Parreira was present for the second time at the World Cup as coach of a Gulf national team. Shortly before the tournament in Italy, he had replaced compatriot Mario Zagallo as coach of the United Arab Emirates, a team that was participating in football’s premier competition for the first time.
Drawn in a terrible group – with future world champions Germany, Yugoslavia, and Colombia – the UAE national team had virtually no chance. Clear work since the debut match, 0-2 against Colombia. Almost a week later, on June 15, 1990, the toughest duel followed, with Germany, in Milan, at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza. Ahead of the tournament, an Emirati businessman promised a Rolls Royce to whoever scores the country’s first ever World Cup goal. “I spent the last two weeks before the competition dreaming about the color the car could have,” Khalid Ismaïl said years later.
It was Ismaïl who entered the history of the UAE national team. In the first minute of the second half, when Germany was already leading 2-0, he scored his country’s first World Cup goal. Celebrated as if he had won the trophy. It was just a storm in a teacup. The Germans eventually prevailed 5-1, and in the last match in the group, the United Arab Emirates also lost clearly against Yugoslavia (1-4). No one has conceded more goals in the Coppa del Mondo.
But for Khalid Ismaïl, the goal against the future trophy winner remained a priceless moment. Even though, in a 2010 interview, he claimed he didn’t get the promised Rolls…
Saeed Al-Owairan’s Race to Glory
Although it will participate in the World Cup for the sixth time in 2022, Saudi Arabia’s best moment in football’s number 1 competition remains that of 1994. On their absolute debut, the Saudis impressed and remain to this day the only representatives of the Gulf area to they got past the group stage at the final tournament. This performance was possible thanks to the sensational parades of Mohamed Al-Deayea, but also because Saeed Al-Owairan scored one of the most beautiful goals in the history of the World Cup.
It was June 29, 1994, and Saudi Arabia was playing Belgium in Washington. In the first two stages of the group, the Saudis lost narrowly to the Netherlands (1-2) and beat Morocco 2-1. The Europeans had the maximum score, following the victories against Morocco (1-0) and the Netherlands (1-0). The Saudis needed 3 points to progress and got them after Al-Owairan’s memorable run. It was only the 5th minute of the match when the Saudi striker took the ball from his own half and did not stop until he sent it into the goal of the helpless Michel Preud’homme. An anthological goal, for a historical result.
Saudi Arabia prevailed 1-0 and qualified for the round of 16 from second place in the group won by the Netherlands. It then lost to Sweden (1-3), and the success against Belgium remained the last in the history of this country at the World Cup until 2018. 4 years ago, in Volgograd, the Saudis defeated another Arab national team, Egypt (2- 1).