The 1996 AFC Asian Cup was one of what-might-have been for the UAE.
The country’s first “golden generation” were nearing the end of their careers. A few already had retired. The others were not far off. Six years on from the 1990 World Cup, the likes of Zuhair “Bad Boy” Bakheet, goalkeeper Muhsin Musabah and, above all, captain Adnan Al Talyani had one last shot at glory.
They nearly grasped it.
For the first time, the competition was held in the UAE.
For the man often considered the country’s greatest player, Al Talyani, this was a chance to bow out in a blaze of glory, in front of his adoring audience, on the biggest continental stage.
Decorated Croatian coach Tomislav Ivic was in charge of a squad who had finished fourth in the 1992 tournament in Japan and who were runners-up in the 1994 Gulf Cup of Nations, held in the UAE.
As ever, long-suffering UAE fans entered more in hope than expectation.
“This was a good team, especially up front with Al Talyani and Zuhair Bakheet,” said Mohammed Hassan, a high school student at the time. “Playing at home helps, but we had never won a cup before. I didn’t think we would go all the way.”
In the tournament opener, an unusually poor South Korea got off to a flyer, taking a ninth-minute lead through one of their outstanding forwards of the time, Hwang Sun-hong.
The UAE levelled through Khamis Saad five minutes before the break, but neither side managed a breakthrough in the second.
Still, with Indonesia holding Kuwait to a surprise 2-2 draw, Ivic’s men knew a win against the latter in the second match would almost guarantee progress from the group.
It proved one of the most dramatic matches of the tournament. Kuwait raced into an early lead through Jasem Al Huwaidi and the same player doubled the lead on the stroke of half-time, leaving UAE fans holding out for a miracle.
“We all remembered the match against Kuwait in Gulf Cup 1992,” Hassan said. “Zuhair scored in the last minutes to win 3-2; it was a day we never forgot.”
History was about to repeat itself in perhaps the most memorable 45 minutes of football the UAE have delivered at an Asian Cup.
Hassan Saeed gave the country hope with a 53rd-minute strike and, only two minutes later, Al Talyani equalised. Emirati fans at Zayed Sports City Stadium roared in approval.
Bakheet Saad Mubarak completed the stunning comeback with a goal 10 minutes from time. The Emiratis celebrated progress to the quarter-finals with one group match left.
A comfortable 2-0 win over Indonesia, on goals by Saeed and Al Talyani, ensured the home nation finished top of Group A. Kuwait were second and South Korea also qualified as one of the best third-place teams.
This left the UAE facing Gulf rivals Iraq in the last eight, with Kuwait v Japan, South Korea v Iran and Saudi Arabia v China completing the quarter-finals line-up.
“Iraq were not the team of 10 years before and we had already beaten Kuwait,” said Mohammed Saeed, a fan who was 27 at the time. “I remember we thought this was our big chance to go through.”
The UAE team and fans endured a scoreless 90 minutes. In front of 50,000 fans at Zayed Sports City, the UAE became the first team to advance to the semi-finals thanks to Abdulrahman Ibrahim’s golden goal in the 103rd minute.
Suddenly, a belief emerged that this could be the year the UAE finally claimed their first international title. On Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, the fans celebrated late into the night.
Kuwait beat Japan 2-0 on the same day, in Al Ain, Al Huwaidi again the hero with both goals.
The next day, Iran humiliated South Korea 6-2 at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai as striker Ali Daei scored four goals in the last 25 minutes.
Saudi Arabia fought back from a 2-0 deficit to defeat China 4-3 and complete the semi-final line-up.
There would be no deluge of goals for the rest of the tournament.
The UAE support, on the other hand, was swelling by the day.
Another crowd of 50,000 packed Zayed Sports City for the semi-final against Kuwait and were rewarded with a tense victory. Saeed repeated his group-stage heroics with a 69th-minute header.
The UAE had made it to the final of a tournament for the first time in the country’s 25-year history.
“It was our best achievement yet,” Hassan said. “But now we wanted the cup, not just to reach the final.”
Saudi Arabia beat Iran 4-3 on penalties, after 120 scoreless minutes, in the other semi-final and for the first time in its history, the Asian Cup final was an all-Gulf clash.
The UAE had home advantage. But Saudi Arabia were undoubtedly the region’s most formidable team of that period.
“They had played in the World Cup two years earlier, so they were the favourites,” said Saeed, the Abu Dhabi resident who attended the final. “That’s not what we thought; we believed in our players. It was the first time we had reached a final.”
The crowd was enormous and enthusiastic, but the football was mostly forgettable.
Except for one moment five minutes into the second half.
Saeed dispossessed the Saudi left-back and back-heeled the ball into the path of Zuhair Bakheet. The striker raced towards the goal and his low cross eluded Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deayea.
With an open goal before him, needing only to tap the ball into the net, Al Talyani somehow blazed the bouncing ball over the bar with his left foot.
“From where we were sitting, it looked like the ball was going in,” said Saeed, the fan. “Then it went over the bar. We couldn’t believe it. There was still time to win, but that was the moment we lost the final.”
An old Arabic saying holds that “a master’s mistake is worth a thousand others”. In one of the biggest matches of his career, Al Talyani produced his worst miss.
In hindsight, it is easy to pick out that moment as the one in which the UAE’s hopes of glory disappeared.
The rest of the 90 minutes and extra time deteriorated into an ugly, physical battle, with Hussein Sulaimani of Saudi sent off with seven minutes left.
A distraught Al Talyani was substituted at full time and the UAE failed to find a way past Saudi’s 10 men.
For the second time in three days, the Saudis were in a shootout.
Yousef Saleh missed the UAE’s second penalty. They were behind 3-2 when Saeed, their surprise star of the tournament, also missed. Saudi midfielder Khalid Al Muwallid beat Musabah to win the shootout 4-2.
Saudi Arabia were champions for the third time in four tournaments, confirming themselves as one of Asia’s most successful teams of any era.
From the sideline, Al Talyani seemed lost in his thoughts of what might have been.
“I was young at the time, only 16, and didn’t realise how big an opportunity this was,” Hassan said.
“We were very sad, but also proud. Many players left after that.”
There would be no trophy for this golden generation. The country still waits for Asian Cup glory.
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