LONDON: While some Saudi Arabia fans may view recent results and fear for their side at the World Cup, Sami Al-Jaber is not one of them.
Few Arab players, if any, know more about playing at the World Cup than Al-Jaber — the Green Falcons star played at four showpieces from 1994 to 2006, scoring at three of them — and knows only too well that friendly setbacks do not necessarily result in World Cup woe.
“(Before USA ‘94) our friendly games were a disaster,” Al-Jaber told Arab News.
“We lost 5-1 to Greece but at the tournament Greece finished bottom of their group and we went through. We took responsibility. The older and younger players came together with one goal: To show who we are and what our country is.”
That will come as welcome relief to fans focusing on Saudi Arabia’s 4-0 defeat at the hands Belgium two weeks ago — a trouncing that came on the back of a draw to Ukraine and another heavy defeat to Iraq.
While those results are hardly anything to shout about, the one caveat is that the past few months have been turbulent for the national team. Since they qualified for Russia last September two managers have gone and new coach Juan Antonio Pizzi has only had four games with his charges.
But even though things have not gone according to plan Al-Jaber is certain the Green Falcons can do well this summer, where success would mean emulating the achievements of Al-Jaber and Co, who at USA ‘94 reached the knockout stage.
“It’s not going to be easy but four points may be enough,” Al-Jaber said of Saudi Arabia’s group containing the hosts Russia, Uruguay and Egypt.
“If you draw with Russia, lose to Uruguay then you can still go through with a win against Egypt. Every reasonable coach will be thinking like this.”
First up is the tournament’s opening game against the hosts in Moscow.
“It’s not going to be easy. Most people here know how difficult it is to play against Russia in the opening game.
“Everybody is waiting for that because both teams have a big chance to have a good start at the World Cup. Russia will be studying Saudi Arabia very well. I don’t think they will judge us by our friendly results. It doesn’t matter. The result against Belgium doesn’t mean anything. We can compete especially if we score early.”
If Pizzi’s men have one problem that stands out above all others, however, it is their troubles in front of goal.
“The goalscoring is a big problem,” said Al-Jaber who scored his 46th and final goal for his country against Tunisia at the 2006 World Cup. “I can’t see a good striker at the moment who is playing well.”
For Al-Jaber, the player who needs to step up and is Fahad Al-Muwallad. The winger scored the goal against Japan that secured qualification last September and has 10 goals in 41 international appearances.
“If there is anyone who has the quality, he is the one. He is as important as Neymar is to Brazil, and Messi to Argentina,” Al-Jaber said.
“I am not saying that he is as good as them but he is important.
“He is the key to making the transition with great speed, he can dribble and make goals and play in any attacking position. He also works hard without the ball.”
The Al-Ittihad wide man is one of nine Saudi Arabians on loan to clubs in Spain. As yet, the 23 year-old has not played a competitive game for Levante and it is likely that he will go to Russia with little game time under his belt.
“It is something that the coach will have to think about. It is good for players to go to Spain but they need time to adapt and then they need to play. We will just have to see what he is like at the time but he has to play,” Al-Jaber said.
But one thing is certain, and that is that the Green Falcons will be tested in each and every one of their matches in Russia. So while goals have been the problem, it is likely the Saudi Arabai defense that will be under the most pressure once the tournament has kicked off.
“We have to keep it tight,” Al-Jaber said.
“If Russia and the other teams press us they will cause us problems especially as we didn’t get the tests in qualification that we needed. Japan and Australia were not at their best and UAE and Iraq are a level below Saudi Arabia.
“We have to study every opponent and understand that every game is different. We have to take care of everything. All coaches have to take care of the small details and you have to use the tools that you have. Players have to rise to the occasion.”
Scoring first World Cup goal:
“It was a great feeling. The first time was special. You don’t know at the time if there will be another chance to go to the World Cup.”
Scoring third World Cup goal:
“I put us ahead against Tunisia with five minutes left and we should have won the game. It was still special to score. If you don’t play at the World Cup, the world will not remember but if you play well and score, it takes you to the next level.”
Winning 1996 Asian Cup:
“The Asian Cup is important but you always felt as a player that you will play there again and again. I am proud of 1996. It carried on from the 1994 World Cup and showed that Saudi Arabia was a force in Asia and the world.”
Winning 2000 Asian Club Championship with Al-Hilal:
“We had top players, top foreign players and a good manager and we loved our club. We reflected the strength of the national team and to be the champions of Asia for the club was a great gift to the fans.”