Doha, Qatar. 28 October 1993. 5.59pm.

Hans Ooft looks every bit like a man who is about to have a heart attack. He is a middle-aged, rotund figure with short, dark, tightly curled hair who is in perpetual motion; walking, hopping, kneeling, spinning and crouching as the football match playing out in front of him reaches its frenzied, scrappy and vital conclusion. The stands of the Al Ahly stadium in the Qatari capital of Doha are only half full but noisy. Thousands of Japanese football fans have come here to this tiny, unknown and barren peninsula in the Gulf to see history being made. They are just a few minutes away from witnessing it.

Ooft is the first foreign coach of the Japan national football team. The Dutchman had been hired with one task in mind: to take the Blue Samurai to their first World Cup finals, to be held the following year in the United States. Japan has, historically, been a footballing minnow in Asia compared to the teams of the Middle East or even the likes of North and South Korea. But in the previous two years things had begun to change. A new, big-money professional league had been started, the J.League, just six months before. Gary Lineker and a host of well-known foreign players had moved to play there too, raising its profile. Only the year before Japan had won their first ever Asian Cup, beating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final. The thousands of fans, including an incredible 300 Japanese journalists who had travelled halfway across the world to be here, expected qualification. So did Hans Ooft.

The match is about to enter the 90th minute and Japan are beating Iraq 2-1. As things stand, Japan have made it after a gruelling fortnight. Over the previous two weeks Japan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, South Korea and Saudi Arabia have played in a round-robin tournament to decide which two teams would qualify for USA 94. The schedule of matches alone, with many taking place just two days apart, would be exhausting enough. But each game was also a geopolitical nightmare waiting to happen. The favourites are Saudi Arabia but the dark horses are Iraq, who qualified for the 1986 World Cup finals. More importantly, it is just three years since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, threatening to take on the Saudis next and sparking the first Gulf War. It is just five years since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, one of the most pointless and wasteful conflicts of modern times, where up to one million people died in trenches surrounded by the fog of chemical warfare. North and South Korea have resumed their hostilities too, with the DPRK threatening to nuke the South. There was a historical Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian enmity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Finally, there were the colonial resentments from the Japanese empire’s cruel occupation of its neighbours until the end of the Second World War. 

Three of the teams – Iran, Iraq and North Korea – were still under sanction by the US government. It wasn’t certain they would even be allowed in to the US if they did qualify. The organising committee for USA 94 held its breath. Libya, which was also under US sanction, had recently seen its athletes banned from attending a youth tournament in the States. The qualifying games had become so politically sensitive that the State Department has even sent a representative to Doha, to keep an eye on things.

But, after four games, that is all academic now for the Blue Samurai. Japan sit top of the group. All that is required is victory against Iraq. The 90th minute arrives and Hans Ooft finally sits back on the bench, his white linen jacket rolled up to the elbows, tie firmly knotted. He pulls out a packet of cigarettes, lights one and inhales deeply. There seemed little danger when Iraq push forward in the final moments of the game, the choreographed, celebratory songs and drums of the Japanese fans the only noise that can be heard. It didn’t seem premature. Iraq, after all, had nothing to play for and had virtually been eliminated. Simultaneously, elsewhere in the city, Saudi Arabia had just beaten Iran and qualified for their first finals. South Korea were beating North Korea 3-0. The Iraqis needed North Korea to score three times in 90 seconds to stand any chance of qualifying for USA 94. Iraq were going home. Even when an Iraqi winger received the ball on the right, shimmied, beat his man and delivered a high looped ball into Japan’s penalty box, there seemed to be little danger. Yet, out of nowhere, an Iraqi head rises up. Jaffar Omran Salman, a half-time substitute, knocks the ball high. It slowly arcs over the head of the goalkeeper Shigitatsu Matsunaga and drops into the net as if in slow motion.

Hans Ooft extinguishes his cigarette.

Ion Crăciunescu doesn’t appear to have aged in 20 years. He is sitting in a café in his home city of Bucharest in an expensive white shirt looking no different to the younger man who was one of Europe’s leading referees. He had got there early. “There were five of us and we were told it was going to be very difficult,” the 63 year old said. Back in 1993, Crăciunescu was one of Uefa’s elite referees; he would go on to take charge of the 1995 Champions League final. When reality dawned on the then-Fifa general secretary Sepp Blatter that fate had resulted in one of the most politically explosive sports tournaments in history, his first decision was to put together a crack team of European referees. Crăciunescu was on the list and on his way to Doha. “The fee we received from Fifa was double what we would normally receive,” he recalls. “It was funny when we got there. Blatter was there and he told us that we could expect a horror tournament. That if they these countries were at war with each other you could expect the same on the pitch.”

Crăciunescu had plenty of experience of operating under tough conditions. As a young referee in Romania under communism he had to negotiate a minefield of corruption and manipulation from the authorities, team owners and players. Romanian football had long been captured by political and business interests. Steaua Bucharest were the team of the army. Dinamo Bucharest, their bitter rivals, the team of the country’s internal security police. Matches, cups, championships and player transfers: they were all manipulated for a favourable outcome, depending on which way the political wind was blowing at the time. Early in his career, Crăciunescu explains, he was beaten unconscious after refereeing one match in a remote mining town in the north east of the country. On other occasions he had been threatened with arrest by the country’s feared Securitate. Being an international referee in 1980s Romania meant maintaining standards of honesty that no one else in a position of authority in the country seemed to be bothered with. But, he says, he maintained his impartiality on the pitch.

He was the perfect person to take charge when Iraq played Iran. “It was a game that was announced to be impossible,” he laughs. Iran had a good young side, including the fledgling striker Ali Daei, who would go on to claim the world record for scoring the most international goals. Iran had made it to one finals before in 1978 where they famously drew with an over-confident Scotland. But that was under the Shah and the 1979 Islamic revolution had spelt the end for that team, many of whom left the country. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out, the local league was suspended. All men of fighting age were needed on the front line. The league and the national team had only recently been put back together again. “The big issue was to try to ensure fair play so that it didn’t erupt into war on the pitch as it had outside,” Crăciunescu explains. He went in hard. “I gave many yellow cards,” he recalls with a guilty smile. “I remember, anyone would do anything, just the smallest thing, I’d give a card.”

His severity did the trick. The match passed without incident. Iraq won 2-1 and were looking good. “It turned out to be quite peaceful,” Crăciunescu says. “There was no problem between the players. I didn’t see any political implications. I exaggerated if anything, because we had been inoculated with the idea that something might happen.” He had been sure, too, that he had seen a team who would make it to the World Cup finals. “I think Iraq had a really good team there with a very famous player, Ahmed Radhi,” he said. “Iraq were one of the best teams in the tournament.”

But something else was afoot. Although the referees had been scrupulous and kept in isolation away from the other teams who, for some reason, had all been placed in the same hotel together, Crăciunescu had an inkling that Iraq’s progress was not being appreciated. “There was some sort of a trend…” he says tentatively, trailing off.

A long pause.

“Some of the teams were not desired there.”

Another long pause.

“I could feel something.”

Crăciunescu is fidgeting in his seat uncomfortably, reaching for the right words before giving up.

“That’s it,” he finally offers.

Later he speaks of how proud he was for being chosen to go, how happy he was to have been chosen to coach the toughest games and how happy he had been with his own personal performance. Yet there were whispers after Iraq had won. Crăciunescu maintains no one tried to pressure him into anything. But, finally, and in four words, he sums up what was being said off the pitch, in the corridors and in the back rooms behind the scenes during that time.

“No terrorists in America.”

The USA’s first World Cup finals would have taken place in an atmosphere of almost total indifference if it hadn’t been for Alan Rothenberg. A lawyer by trade, he became head of the United States Soccer Federation and was put in charge of organising a tournament revered around the world but largely ignored in the US. The plan to change all that began with an unmistakable touch of American glamour. The draw for the finals took place in Sin City. Robin Williams performed stand-up. Throughout his performance he refereed to Sepp Blatter as “Sepp Bladder”. Sepp Blatter was in the crowd. “The federation was nearly bankrupt. We had to professionalise. We had to organise the World Cup with no one on staff,” Rothenberg explains of the run up to the finals in 1994. 

When Rothenberg took charge of the preparations for the World Cup almost nothing was in place. At the beginning of the 1990s soccer was of little interest to most Americans. The brief hysteria that had been stimulated by the short-lived North American Soccer League of the late 70s and early 80s – when Cruyff and Beckenbauer and Pelé would draw huge crowds – died away, as did the league. Soccer was small, unimportant and amateur. “We had stadiums but they were American football stadiums,” he says. “And the people around them were American football people.” But Rothenberg embarked on an ambitious programme to revolutionise soccer in the US. “We rebuilt the federation, organised the World Cup, organised the new pro league to start when the World Cup finished, from scratch. It was a bad, bad 24-7 scramble by a lot of people.” The hardest part, though, wasn’t building it. It was convincing Americans actually to care. “We had to educate and hype the public and tell them what it was,” he recalls. “They had no background. We had to do a massive public relations job. We had to take the national team to a new competitive level too. ”

By October 1993 Rothenberg was close to realising his dream. Major League Soccer would soon be born. The stadiums were ready. Top celebrities had been drafted in from the draw in Las Vegas to the opening ceremony. Diana Ross would sing, then famously miss a penalty. All was going to plan. And then Rothenberg was told about the final Asian qualification tournament on the other side of the world in Doha. “We were holding our breath,” he says of that month. “Three countries, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, who had no love for the United States, and the feeling was mutual, had a chance to qualify. The security challenge would have been enormous. And they came pretty darn close! The fact that they didn’t qualify was a godsend, quite honestly.”

Rothenberg and the USA 94 organising committee kept a close eye on the results in Doha. Years of careful planning would have been thrown into chaos if any of those teams had qualified, let alone two of them. He had to make contingency plans just in case. “We were gearing up for the worst and we had a budget for those teams,” he says. There were talks with State Department officials. They sent a man to Doha who was told that Fifa would insist that those countries would have to be allowed in. [The official initially agreed, and then declined to be interviewed.] The result almost ended in court. “You had Libya whose federation was run by Gaddafi’s son, Iran, [Saddam] Hussein’s son who was in charge of Iraq; we had to check everyone for terrorism links and couldn’t discriminate,” Rothenberg recalls. The way around it, Rothenberg thought, was to send lengthy accreditation forms to everyone, be they the son of dictators or an American newspaper editor. “I had a call from the legal counsel of the New York Times telling me I was violating First Amendment rights, that they had a right to be there,” he says. “We had to do background checks to make sure no terrorists can get it and the New York Times said they’d sue.”

At least one headache was solved, though. There was a fourth team that Rothenberg prayed would not qualify. England. “It was a time before the Europeans had controlled hooliganism,” he says. “The fact that England didn’t qualify was a godsend too.” In the end, England’s hapless coach at the time, Graham Taylor, answered Rothenberg’s prayers. But there were three teams to go. As the tournament in Doha reached its conclusion, Rothenberg was counting the economic and political cost of having two from three of America’s greatest enemies on home soil. “It would have cost millions and millions of dollars and the government was taking it extremely seriously,” he says. Rothenberg kept in constant contact with Blatter on the issue. “I talked to Sepp,” he said. “They sent the best referees and line officials and they were prepared for the potential problems. I watched it all like a hawk.”

Eight people had told me that Hans Ooft was dead before I discovered that he was, in fact, alive and well and living in God’s Waiting Room. Ooft has retired to Florida, giving up the game in 2011 after a brief return to Japanese club football. But the highlight of his career, or at the very least the closest he had flown to the sun, was taking Japan to the final qualification round for USA 94. “I had a nice bunch of players, 25 to 30 years old, and I knew I could do something,” he says in a heavy Dutch accent. He laughs the deep, heavy, rasping laugh of a lifelong smoker. “For the first time in their history Japanese soccer got some results. They launched the J.League so everything was coming together. In 1992 we became champions of Asia. We knew in 1993 we’d have a lot resistance to qualify [for USA 94] because we were the target now.”

Still, Ooft and Japan’s road to America was a long one. An earlier round of qualification involved a mini tournament in Japan and then Dubai against the likes of the UAE, who had qualified for Italia 90, and Sri Lanka. They progressed, but now everyone was worried about travelling to the Gulf. “My biggest concern was where do we stay?” Ooft says. “The political situation, the war in Iraq and the tension over more war. We were worried about the safety of the players. So we went to the left wing of the hotel. Our very own wing!” The phone crackles with laughter. “Ghur, ghur, ghur! Ghur!

The Qataris in their wisdom had decided to place all six teams in the same hotel. The Japanese brought their own chefs, their own food and their own journalists. As Ooft explains, he shut the wing down, separating the players from the outside world. The team were tired. They had just completed the J.League’s first competitive season. A goalless draw against Saudi Arabia was followed by a 2-1 loss to Iran. “The second match against Iran they went for our playmaker [Brazilian-born] Ruy Ramos,” Ooft says, sounding annoyed for the only time during our interview. “They kicked him whenever and wherever they could so we lost.” The two results, though, had a galvanising effect on his team. “It was very strange,” he remembers. “After I said: ‘We have to win every match. Every match is a final. North Korea, South Korea, Iraq. The pressure was gone. We won against North Korea and South Korea. But the pressure was back for the last match.”

Ooft recalls the final match against Iraq slowly and methodically, as if he’s remembering the exact sequence of events out loud for the first time in his life. The Iraqis were, he says, much the better team. “Maybe they were getting pressure from the [Iraqi] government!” Ooft rattles off another burst of laughter. “We didn’t play so good. But we scored. 1-0. At half-time they were really nervous. I said: “Hey! Guys! We are 1-0 up, we are 45 minutes away from the United States. Then it’s 2-1 with 15 minutes to go. But still you could see we could not control the match.”

But, in Doha on 28 October 1993, 5.59pm, 90 minutes were now up. On the bench Ooft lit his cigarette and contemplated a World Cup finals in America. “Time was up,” he says, recalling how he felt at that moment. “But it drags on and drags on. And then I saw the Iraqi centre forward coming up the pitch…” Ooft’s recollection trails off. He wasn’t laughing anymore.

After Iraq had scored to make it 2-2, Japan’s players collapsed around the pitch. They lay on the turf, motionless, in different contortions: on their knees, on their sides, on their backs, hands covering their faces, as if robots whose batteries had been suddenly and violently yanked out of their backs. “I knew in that moment it was over,” says Ooft. “Because the moment the referee would blow to restart he would blow again. It was over. Shit.”

That day would become known, even until today, as the Agony of Doha, a day of national shame for Japan that would hang around the player’s necks every bit as heavily as any English penalty shoot-out failure. Ooft walked onto the pitch in his linen jacket and tried to rally his side. “My job is not over when the referee blows his whistle. I had to go and pick up my players, they were devastated,” he says. “A lot of these players knew it was their final chance to make it to the World Cup.” Ooft only had half an hour with his players before facing the music at the press conference. “I could see all the crying faces of the Japanese press. That was not nice. It was very emotional.” It wasn’t until he had flown back to Japan 24 hours later that the defeat hit him. “That was the moment, when the press at the airport asked me how I felt. And it was the first time I’d thought about it. I told them: ‘I felt empty.’ It took me two days to recover.” Ooft is philosophical about it today. “Maybe it wasn’t the right thing for Japanese soccer, ” he says. “What could we have done in America? We would have been underdogs. Maybe they had to wait four years more. We didn’t make it but we made a lot of progress.”

In Doha, what was agony for Japan was a miracle for Korea. At the same time, across the city, Ion Crăciunescu was taking charge of North Korea versus South Korea in an oddly convivial atmosphere. “Speaking of politics, South Korea’s qualification depended on Japan’s game and I honestly think that the North Koreans were very kind to the South Koreans,” he says cryptically. The North Koreans were, he says, very polite. South Korea needed to win and pray that Japan somehow didn’t against Iraq. “When the Korea game ended the Japan result was not known,” Crăciunescu recalls. “We had finished the game. The players had shaken hands and South Korea had won 3-0. They [the South Koreans] left the pitch with their heads down.”

But, suddenly, the mood changed. News had come through that Iraq had scored. “Then the South Koreans started jumping up and down in unimaginable joy. And I actually saw that the North Koreans were kind of happy for South Korea because they had heard what had happened to Japan.” The two nations players talked, smiled and congratulated each other on the pitch. After all the talk of war, the two sets of players had found a common ground in the game, their shared heritage and, in Japan, a bogeyman they could agree on. For Crăciunescu it was a beautiful moment. “It was,” he says, “an incredible atmosphere.”

In Korea, 28 October 1993 is known as the Miracle of Doha, the day that victory was snatched from the country’s former colonial oppressors. It would be they and Saudi Arabia who would be going to USA 94.

This was great news for Alan Rothenberg. “It saved a lot of money and saved a lot of headaches,” he admits. “It would have put a different flavour on the tournament. The bad side of international relations would have been there. It was a festive occasion and everyone was there for a good time. The presence of lots of armed forces would have dampened that enthusiasm. There would have been less of a party mood.”

The 1994 World Cup was a huge success. Brazil won, beating Italy in the first final decided by a penalty shoot-out. More than 94,000 people watched the final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Saudi Arabia made it to the second round but will be remembered for Saeed al-Owairan’s goal against Belgium, as he slalomed through the defence before scoring. It is to this day considered one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. He would later be arrested and jailed in Saudi Arabia for carousing with women and drinking alcohol.

The Iraq team returned home. But it later emerged that the national team’s players had regularly and brutally been tortured by Saddam’s son Uday Hussein for their perceived poor performances. When US forces broke into the basement of the Iraqi Olympic Committee headquarters during the Second Gulf War, they found a rack and a medieval torture device designed to rip open a man’s anus. For their failure to make it to USA 94, the Iraq team was only allegedly forced to play a game with a concrete football as Uday watched.

Iran would qualify for the 1998 World Cup finals in France and famously beat the US. A million people would celebrate on the streets of Tehran. The North Korea team would finally make it to a second World Cup finals too, at South Africa in 2010, but they would leave as much of a mystery as they arrived. 

In 1995 Qatar would see the Emir removed in a bloodless palace coup led by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. Over the following two decades the new Emir Thani would, fuelled by incredible wealth from the discovery and exploitation of the world’s biggest natural gas field, transform Qatar into one of the richest countries in the world, bankrolling the Al Jazeera news network and becoming a leading economic and political power in the Middle East as well as a key ally to the US. By the time he chose to step down in 2013 and pass on power to his son, a rarity in Arab dynastic politics, Qatar had stunningly secured the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals.

In 1998 Sepp Blatter would be elected President of Fifa “Sport has this extraordinary power to build bridges in society,” Blatter wrote in reply to written questions about the 1993 tournament in Doha. “Football connects people, as you hear me say often. Not because it sounds nice, but because I firmly believe in this. So, I never considered this line-up as ‘a politically combustible mix’!” He denies that any specific action had to be taken “because there was no tension. It was decided to have Fifa Vice-President Vyacheslav Koloskov oversee the competition together with members of the Fifa Referees Committee.”

Blatter has fond memories of that tournament. “I especially remember the last-minute equaliser of Iraq against Japan, on the last match day, which opened the door in terms of qualification for Korea Republic – together with Saudi Arabia – and prevented Japan from making it to the final tournament in the USA.” But Blatter wasn’t worried about the issue of Iran, Iraq or North Korea qualifying. Perhaps it was because he believed he had secured an important ‘Get Out of Jail’ card. “We had no concerns about any other team qualifying,” Blatter replies. “Because we had received assurances from President Bill Clinton that any team would be warmly welcomed.”

And what of Ooft? He was fired but the groundwork had been laid. Over the past decade, Japan have been the best team in Asia. For the Americans, the result of the tournament couldn’t have gone any better. I ask Ooft whether he saw anything going on behind the scenes. “Maybe there was something going on,” he says, without elaborating. “But the more you look at the other things the more you get lost, you can only concentrate on yourself.” Ooft gives one final burst of filthy laughter. “So, now, I don’t give a shit. You know what I mean?”