WASHINGTON -- The soccer world was turned upside down $$ at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium for a half last night, but Saudi Arabia couldn't complete its shot at a Miracle on Grass.
Saudi Arabia, next-to-last in the FIFA rankings among the 24 teams entered in the 15th World Cup, went ahead of mighty Netherlands in the 18th minute, but the lead, if not the Saudi spirit, evaporated in the second half as Netherlands awoke in time to claim a 2-1 victory in the Group F opener for both teams.
Despite several thousand empty seats, attendance was announced at a near-capacity of 52,385, and for much of the match they were treated to the prospect of an upset the magnitude of North Korea's shocker over Italy in 1966, a soccer ** happening that made the accomplishments of the 1969 Mets and the 1980 U.S. ice hockey team look ho-hum.
It was the first World Cup match ever for Saudi Arabia, which backed out of plans to practice at Catonsville Community College and trained in relative secrecy in New Jersey and here. The ruling family, which finds the time to run Saudi soccer in addition to the nation, got more publicity than the players.
The Netherlands received a rude introduction, however, and for 50 minutes the team ranked No. 2 in the FIFA rankings, behind only defending champion Germany, merely added to its recent history of underachievement.
Order was restored in the second half, as Wim Jonk got the equalizer in the 50th minute and substitute forward Gaston Taument took advantage of a blunder by Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Mohammed Al Deyea to head the decisive goal into an open net with less than five minutes to go.
"Saudi Arabia played better in the first 30 minutes," Netherlands coach Dick Advocaat said, "but the second half was totally different."
Actually, The Netherlands' 29-9 edge in shots was spread equally over both halves, but Saudi Arabia did record a shot heard at least halfway around the world during a period when the teams were just getting a feel for World Cup pressure.
The genesis of the Saudi Arabian goal was a hard Dutch foul on forward Saeed Owairan to the right of the penalty area. Fahad Al Bishi sent the free kick on to a line of teammates, and the second man, Fuad Amin, sent a header through a flat-footed Netherlands defense and inside the right post.
Jorge Solari, the Argentine who was hired to coach Saudi Arabia in February, pulled limping forward Majed Mohammed just before halftime and replaced the most renowned player in the nation's history with a defensive midfielder, but the Dutch didn't care if he used 10 defenders. Advocaat had five reserves warming up on the sidelines as the second half started, and the 11 on the field got the message.
The Saudis gave Jonk too much space in the 50th minute, and his 25-yarder to the right post tied it.
Even a 1-1 tie would have been a landmark in Saudi Arabia's international sports history, but thirty-six minutes later the Netherlands finally got the go-ahead goal and matched Belgium's three points in Group E.
Frank de Boer sent a cross from the left side to the top of the penalty area, where a teammate, a defender and Saudi Arabian goalkeeper Al Deayea converged. None changed the ball's direction, and Taument got his second international goal.
Taument is one of the youngsters getting a chance in the absence of past Dutch stars like Ruud Gullit, a midfielder who left the team in a huff last month, and injured goal machine Marco van Basten.
WORLD CUP TODAY
First round * Argentina vs. Greece at Foxboro, Mass., 12:35 p.m., ESPN
Germany vs. Spain at Chicago, 4:05 p.m., ESPN
* Nigeria vs. Bulgaria at Dallas, 7:35 p.m., ESPN2