FIFA U17 World Cup and Saudi Arabia’s ‘dark history’

The FIFA U17 World Cup, which is set to kick off on 10 November in Indonesia, inevitably brings back memories of its dark history involving Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is set to be appointed by FIFA as the host of 2034 World Cup. They are the sole candidate since Australia decided not to pursue a hosting bid at the end of October. Such led to the assumption that Saudi Arabia ‘bought’ FIFA, which was not surprising given their massive campaign on world football and possible ‘support’ for the global football governing body.

However, a few, except the Scots, might have forgotten that Saudi had done it before. It was at the youth level global competition, the U17 World Cup. This dates back in 1989, when Scotland was named the host of the tournament. There is no better time to discuss such issue than today as the news about the Saudi’s imminent appointment as the 2034 World Cup host and the upcoming FIFA U17 World Cup are around the same time.

Saudi Arabia’s ‘stunning’ performance

The 1989 FIFA U16 World Championship, the old name of U17 World Cup was one of the most ‘unusual’ editions in the tournament’s history. It was due to the victory of Asian team Saudi Arabia, which was and has been the first ever in any international stages, at any levels. They surprisingly managed to defeat the host Scotland 5-4 on penalties after sharing spoils in 2-2 draw in 120 minutes.

Their form throughout the tournament was stunning. The Middle Eastern country went unbeaten to the summit. They finished second at the group stage by holding Portugal and Guinea to 2-2 draws before snatching a narrow 1-0 win over Colombia on matchday three.

At the knockout stage, Mohammed Al Deayea and co were able to get past Nigeria on penalties and Bahrain before facing off The Tartan Army. Scotland’s manager at that time, Craig Brown, was already suspicious of their opposition side because some of their players looked like in their twenties. This included the goalkeeper, Al Deayea, who went on to become the man of the match. The ex- Al Hilal man denied two penalties in the final. One was before the shoot-out, and the other was during it.

Former Scottish FA (SFA) secretary Ernie Walker backed Brown’s suspicions. He was informed later about the over-age player fielding in the final by his colleague, a German coach.

“He had traveled the world working for FIFA and had extensive experience at club level, including at least three years in Saudi Arabia before the Under-16 finals,” said Walker. “We got talking about those Finals and he had heard all about it. He told me he couldn’t tell me specific ages but one of the Saudi players in the Final had previously played for him at club level. He told me the player in question was married with three children and was a captain in the Royal Guard – all that and he was playing in the Under-16 World Cup.”

“It was not as if the Saudi players were even six months outside the limit – they simply chose the best players they had available.” Walker added.

Unfortunately, the SFA did not file an official complaint with FIFA. Despite their claims from credible sources, they decided not to pursue Brown and Walker’s allegations. Saudi Arabia’s title was eventually retained.

FIFA’s response to the issue                                                              

So how did the world football governing body react? Officially, nothing, which was certainly disappointing. Nevertheless, they did inquire Walker to prove the over-age allegation against the Saudis. Unfortunately, it was more challenging to do so at that time due to the medical and scientific obstacles.

FIFA might have been embarrassed, should that issue have been exposed to public. Therefore, they seemingly went under the radar to resolve it. Saudi Arabia mysteriously withdrew from 1990 AFC U16 Championship despite qualifying for the final round. It was meant to be the qualifiers for the 1991 U17 World Cup edition. In addition, the Green Falcons have not played in the competition ever since.

It remains a mystery whether such an allegation was true. They might have gotten away with the silverware. Regardless of how deep they have buried the case in the shadows, Saudi football will never be free of their stain.

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