The last AFC Asian Cup of the 20th Century saw more teams that ever enter following the collapse of the Soviet Union and new nations joining the AFC and the tournament itself expanding to a 12-team competition, hosted for the first time in the United Arab Emirates.
1996 Asian Cup
Winner: Saudi Arabia
Hosts: United Arab Emirates
Defending champions Japan joined the UAE as automatic qualifiers, so the remaining 33 teams were drawn into 10 groups, with the top team in each group qualifying for the finals.
With so many new teams entering, some mismatches were inevitable as established teams faced relatively novice teams.
This was demonstrated in Group 1 in Vietnam where the debuting Guam team shipped nine goals in each game, finishing bottom with a -25 goal-difference. The group was won resoundingly by South Korea, who returned to the Asian Cup after missing the 1992 edition, with their 9-0 win against Guam with 4-0 wins over Chinese Taipei and Vietnam to cruise into the finals.
The same happened with the Philippines, who had eight put past them by hosts Hong Kong in Group 2, before China PR scored seven and Macau five. China PR won the group, but only after beating Hong Kong 2-0 in the final qualifying game.
Thailand and Singapore hosted a double round-robin in Group 3 and it was they who fought it out for the one qualification spot. The Maldives conceded 30 in their first Asian Cup campaign in six defeats out of six, while Myanmar battled hard, but were never in contention.
They did play a small part in proceedings, however, as their 2-2 draw with Singapore gave the Singaporeans too much to do against Thailand in the final game, with a 2-2 draw confirming Thailand’s place in the finals.
Malaysia hosted Group 4, but were to miss out on goal difference to Indonesia when, after a goalless draw with the Indonesians, they beat India 5-2, but Indonesia beat the Indians 7-1 to make it to their first ever Asian Cup finals.
Iran and Oman hosted a double round-robin Group 5 which also featured Sri Lanka and Nepal. Iran were the favourites to win and it proved as such as they won all six games with 27 goals scored, ahead of Oman, who won four, but lost both times to Iran.
Jordan played host to Group 6 and, with Bangladesh withdrawing before the tournament started, it left Iraq, Jordan and Pakistan in contention for one place.
As it was, Iraq qualified for their first Asian Cup in 20 years with two wins and no goals conceded, with the 1-0 over Jordan proving decisive.
In Group 7, the decision was made to play home and away games, with established Asian Cup nations Qatar and Syria taking on debuting Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan started with a win over Qatar, but that proved to be their only win. That defeat for Qatar, however, proved crucial as although they beat Syria in Doha, they were behind the Syrians when they travelled to Damascus for the last group game.
Home advantage paid off and Syria won 3-1 to qualify.
Group 8 effectively became a two-legged tie after Bahrain withdrew and Tajikistan looked to have secure qualification when they won the first leg of the tie with Uzbekistan 4-0. The Uzbeks were not to be counted out and an astonishing comeback in Tashkent, including a golden goal winner from Musabayev, saw them win 5-4 on aggregate.
Group 9 was a lot more cut and dried as Saudi Arabia, determined to get back and regain their crown, won all four games against Kyrgyzstan and Yemen to qualify undefeated.
Finally, Group 10 saw Kuwait and Lebanon battle it out for the one place, with Turkmenistan performing admirably, but without much success.
Kuwait managed to qualify after a 5-3 win in Lebanon put them top of the group, then they held out the same opponents in a tense 0-0 draw to qualify by a point.
A new structure was in place with 12 teams competing in three groups, with the top two plus the two best third-placed teams making it to the quarter-finals. Three stadiums, one each in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and Dubai, were the venues chosen to host the tournament games, with the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi the venue for the final.
Group A brought together the hosts, two former champions and a debuting team, as UAE, Kuwait, South Korea and Indonesia were drawn against each other.
The hosts kicked off the tournament with a dour 1-1 draw against South Korea, before a much livelier draw occurred between Indonesia and Kuwait, with Indonesia threatening a huge upset after going 2-0 up, before Kuwait salvaged a draw with two late goals.
Goals began to flow more readily as Kuwait were the next to throw away a two-goal lead against the UAE, with a Saad goal in the 80th minute winning the game 3-2 for the hosts, while South Korea held off a late Indonesian rally to win 4-2, having been 3 goals up after 15 minutes, but with Indonesia getting two back in quick succession.
The last round of games saw Indonesia bow out as the hosts won 2-0, a win that put them top of the group after Kuwait beat South Korea 2-0 to finish second, with the Koreans having to wait and see if they had enough to go through as a third placed team.
Group 2 was the tightest group in terms of points and goal difference, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq all winning two and losing one, each beating the unfortunate Thais, who lost all three games, starting with a six-goal thrashing from the Saudis.
Each team took a scalp of one of their rivals along the way, with Iraq beating Iran, Saudi Arabia beating Iraq and Iran beating Saudi Arabia 3-0 in the final group game to win the group.
Saudi Arabia finished second in the group as although they had the same goal difference and goals scored as Iran, Iran finished ahead based on the result of their match. Iraq took third, but were assured of a quarter-final place due to their points total
Group C saw Japan will all three games to top the group, but not without struggles along the way as China PR and Syria took them to the wire in their matches, Japan only winning against Syria through two late goals and a last-minute goal to put away China PR in the final group game.
Uzbekistan, in their first finals, started brightly with a 2-0 win over China PR and despite a 4-0 defeat by Japan, their destiny was in their own hands after China PR fell to a last-minute Soma goal to lose 1-0 to Japan.
Sadly, despite a Lebedev equaliser, Uzbekistan couldn’t get past a stubborn Syrian side who, despite losing their first two games and already being eliminated, showed character to win 2-1.
That win for Syria put China PR through on goal difference and also sent South Korea through as the second best Third-placed team.
That was as good as it got for South Korea as they lost 6-2 to Iran in the Quarter-finals. It had been a back and forth game for the first hour, but after Ali Daei scored on 66 minutes, it became one-way traffic with Daei scoring four in 23 minutes to send the Koreans home and Iran on to another Asian Cup semi-final.
The other quarter-finals brought much closer and more thrilling encounters as the hosts beat Iraq through the first ever golden goal in Asian Cup history, with Ibrahim breaking Iraqi hearts after 103 minutes.
Saudi Arabia edged out China PR in a seven-goal thriller, coming back from two goals down early on to beat the Chinese 4-3, while the holders crashed out in a shock 2-0 defeat to Kuwait. Japan were shaken by an early Al-Huwaidi goal and never found a way back in, with the same player sealing Kuwait’s place in the Semi-finals after 54 minutes.
The first Semi-final saw the UAE take on 1980 champions Kuwait, looking for their first final place. Home advantage had benefitted Kuwait in 1980 and it was to be the same for the UAE as a Saeed goal on 69 minutes proved enough to knock out the Kuwaitis and take the UAE to their first final
The next semi-final was a much tighter affair with two equally matched teams engaging in a tactical battle that went the distance with no goals scored and a penalty shootout to decide who would face the UAE in the final.
With so much at stake, it was not surprising to see misses in the shootout, with Ali Daei amongst those missing a penalty. The shootout went to sudden-death and after Al-Deayea saved from Khakpour, Ahmed Jamil Madani put Saudi Arabia through to the final.
Iran subsequently won a penalty shootout in the Third-place playoff against Kuwait to end their tournament on a high as they acted as the curtain raiser for the UAE’s biggest game as they took on regional rivals Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final.
For all the anticipation, however, the game was a disappointing affair, with few chances for either side in the 90 minutes of the game and the subsequent 30 minutes of golden goal extra time.
The game went to penalties and saw both sides score their first penalties. The pressure told on the UAE, with Saleh’s spot kick saved by Al-Deayea and Saeed hitting the post and Khalid Al-Muwallid struck home the decisive penalty to break Emirati hearts and win Saudi Arabia’s third Asian Cup.