The Saudia Arabian struggled with the downside of fame but now has nothing but fond memories of his solo strike against Belgium at USA 94.
Saeed Al-Owairan once lamented the fact social media didn’t exist when Saudi Arabia reached the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup.
“Perhaps it would have showcased our talents to a wider audience,” he told FIFA+. “And yet, despite this, I think I’m still the most famous Saudi and Arab player in the history of the World Cup.”
He has some serious competition now, of course. Salem Al-Dawsari’s winner against Argentina on Tuesday was as stunning as it was beautiful.
However, when it comes to the tournament’s greatest ever solo strikes, Al-Owairan’s effort against Belgium at USA 94 is often brought up after any mention of Diego Maradona’s memorable dribble through the England defence in 1986.
“And mine arrived from further out!” Al-Owairan joked in an interview with GOAL.
His run perhaps wasn’t quite as graceful or deliberate as that of Maradona but it is rightly regarded as one of the greatest goals in World Cup history.
It was also a huge moment for Saudi Arabia, and a life-changing experience for Al-Owairan himself.
He had arrived in the United States under enormous pressure to produce.
Despite not being an out-and-out forward, he had been on fire in front of goal in the run-up to the tournament, his country’s top scorer in qualifying, with seven goals. Expectations were high, then.
However, by the third game of the finals, he was feeling desperate, having failed to find the back of the net against either Netherlands or Morocco.
The Saudis also needed to win their final group fixture, against Belgium, to be sure of progressing to the knockout stage.
It looked a tall order. Their opponents had won their first two games, so Al-Owairan sought a little help.
“Before the game, I called everyone from my family, including my mother, and asked them to pray for me and the national team,” he told MBC1.
“We wanted to have a great game and we needed everyone’s support and prayers.”
He also got a morale-boosting call from the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who told him that he was “optimistic” that the player would break his duck against the Belgians.
Nobody, though, could have predicted that Al-Owairan would do so in such memorable fashion.
Indeed, he was in the middle of his own half when he received a pass from Mohamed Al-Jawad, who to this day still jokingly complains about never receiving any credit for his ‘assist’.
Al-Owairan had two team-mates ahead of him but didn’t need either of them, embarking upon a 70-metre run which saw him evade four Belgian defenders before slotting the ball home.
Only five minutes had been played but, incredibly, Saudi Arabia held on, producing a heroic rear-guard action to earn a 1-0 win that secured a historic place in the knockout stage.
“We could have gone further,” Al-Owairan told GOAL. “But after the success against Belgium, we were a bit on a cloud.
“And with this qualification for the second round, the expectations of our supporters became greater.
“It is certain that against Sweden in the last 16, where we lost 3-1, that we should have done better.”
Al-Owairan had already done enough to write his name into World Cup history, though, while his performances in the US also caught the intention of several clubs.
As he revealed to GOAL, there were offers from Portuguese and Brazilian teams but, at the time, Saudi players were forbidden from playing overseas.
Of course, he was treated as a king at home. There were gifts from princes, discounts at stores and endless commercial deals.
“I was the first Middle Eastern to do commercials for Pepsi!” he told MC1.
Unfortunately, Al-Owairan struggled under the intense scrutiny that came with becoming a national hero.
He would play in another World Cup, in France four years later, but only after spending time in a “detention centre” after being caught drinking alcohol with friends during Ramadan in 1996.
“They blew it out of proportion because of my celebrity,” Al-Owairan told the New York Times ahead of France 98.
By that point, Al-Owairan viewed his most famous goal as a “double-edged sword”.
“In some ways, it was great,” he explained. “In other ways, it was awful. Because it put me in the spotlight, everybody was focusing on me.”
Happily, Al-Owairan managed to come to terms with the price of such fame in Saudi Arabia, describing it as a God-given gift and “a turning point” in his life.
“When I remember this tournament now, I feel only pride because I was able to contribute to the excellent run of the national team,” he told GOAL.
“And I remember of course the goal that I scored against Belgium, which was the most beautiful of the tournament.
“It was only after the match, when I saw all of the reaction, that I realised the importance of this goal.”
Social media may not have been around at the time but Al-Owairan’s goal was an instant sensation, and remains regarded as one of the most unforgettable in World Cup history.