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Saudi legend Sami Al-Jaber urges young Arab players to follow in Mohamed Salah’s Liverpool footsteps

Wolves' Sami Al Jaber (R) controls the ball during the match Wolves vs Southampton Aug. 5, 2000, in Wolverhampton. (AFP)
DUBAI: Sami Al-Jaber still gets goose bumps when he recalls his time as the first Saudi Arabian to play professional football in England.
The striker made only a handful of appearances for Wolverhampton Wanderers in the second tier of English football at the turn of the millennium, but the team’s army of fanatical supporters left him with memories he will never forget.
“They loved the club. The passion they had, you can’t believe. It gives you power and will make any player play their best,” he told Arab News.
“They always told me that they believed in me and knew I was good. I only played five games, but I could feel their passion every time I received the ball.”
Now retired, Al-Jaber is one of Saudi Arabia’s most celebrated footballers. Nicknamed “The Legend,” he helped the Kingdom reach its first-ever World Cup in 1994, scoring one goal and setting up two others in a thrilling 4-3 victory over Iran to help the Green Falcons qualify for the tournament.
He went on to represent his country at four World Cups, scoring in 1994, 1998 and 2006, with a tally of 46 goals in 156 appearances for the national team. In 1996, he was a member of the Saudi squad that beat the UAE on penalties to win the Asian Cup.
Al-Jaber joined Wolverhampton, popularly known as Wolves, in 2000, on loan from Al-Hilal. He was 27 and, nagged by injury, struggled to make an impact on the pitch.
But his move helped pave the way for future Arab stars, including Liverpool’s Egyptian forward Mohamed Salah and Leicester’s Algerian playmaker Riyad Mahrez, to light up the English game.
Al-Jaber’s one regret is that he failed to ply his trade in Europe earlier, giving himself time to adapt to the colder weather and higher standard of football.
“I really learned a lot of things in the eight months I was there, about discipline and professionalism. We were just getting started in this regard in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Al-Jaber points to the stratospheric rise of Liverpool’s Salah as an example of the benefits Arab footballers can hope to gain by going to Europe early in their careers. The Egyptian has been one of the standout performers in this season’s Premier League, but even he took time to adapt to football outside his homeland.
Salah played for Basel in Switzerland and had an unsuccessful period at Chelsea in England before spells in Italy with Fiorentina and Roma that caught the eye of Liverpool. He is now in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and has scored 32 goals for his club in all competitions this season, winning praise for his pace and trickery.
“There are so many Salahs in the region, but he went as a young player to many clubs and then he gets the chance at Liverpool and he is ready, he already knows and has adapted to the European game. That would have been a better option for me,” said Al-Jaber.
-International debut in a 1-1 draw with Syria in 1992.
-Last international performance in a 0-1 defeat to Spain at the 2006 World Cup.
-International career lasted 13 years and 285 days.
-Among a small band of elite players to have scored in World Cups 12 years apart. Others to have achieved this feat include Pele, Maradona and Michael Laudrup.
-In January 2008, Al-Hilal held a testimonial for Al-Jaber against a Manchester United team featuring Cristiano Ronaldo. Al-Jaber scored a penalty in a 3-2 win.