RIYADH: Italy, England, Austria, and Germany are just a few of the countries that Alexander Merkel has experienced in his colorful footballing career.
Now, at the age of 29, the Kazakhstan-born former German youth international is on the brink of major success in Saudi Arabia.
It has been an up and down first season for Merkel at Al-Faisaly in the Saudi Pro League but there is a chance for glory this weekend. Should the Burgundy defeat Al-Nassr in the semi-final of the King’s Cup on Sunday then a first major trophy is within reach for the club and Kazakhstan full international.
The midfielder, who arrived in the city of Al-Majma’ah in the middle of last year, is looking forward to the king-sized challenge.
“It is the biggest game of the season so far and we know that we have a tough opponent, but we can win,” Merkel told Arab News.
“It would be a first trophy for the club, and it would be a huge thing. Everyone is looking forward to it, but we are not looking too far forward, however. The final would be great, but we have to get there first.”
But if Al-Faisaly do win the cup then the well-travelled 29-year-old, who has played for Milan, Genoa, Udinese, and Watford, among others will be in the 2022 AFC Champions League and playing against the region’s best teams.
“The AFC Champions League would be fantastic, and it would be a great extra bonus. Who knows what would happen?” he said.
Who indeed, especially on Sunday. Big-spending Al-Nassr with their nine league titles – to Al-Faisaly’s none – may be favorites but Merkel has found that football in the country is nothing if not unpredictable.
When the two last met in the league, the Riyadh giants needed a late goal to win a hard-fought contest 3-2. Since then, Merkel’s team have drawn with the top two sides, Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab, and defeated Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli. It is a little surprising then that the team are just three points above the relegation zone.
“Against tough opponents we play really well but against teams at our level we are struggling a bit. Al-Hilal is the one everyone respects the most. Then you have Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli. But the other teams are not far behind. There is not a massive points gap and any team can beat any team,” he added.
“When we play big teams, they play open football and that suits us. Other teams defend more and that makes it difficult for us sometimes but often it is the small details that make a difference.
“I don’t want to think about relegation, but we play good football. I want to think positive, and we have the quality to stay up. If we win the next three games, we could be sixth.”
Whatever happens, Merkel, who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Dutch club Heracles Almelo, has enjoyed his time so far.
“They contacted me last May and at the time, the Netherlands league was already finished. I thought about it for a while as it was a big step to move to Asia for the first time. I decided with my family to try it and I am really happy and positive about the country. People in Europe don’t know about it. People are friendly and the quality of the league is really good. There are no regrets,” he said.
Having his family around makes a big difference. “In the beginning, it was a little hard with the weather as it was 45-50 degrees. After two or three months, it became easier. The lifestyle is different but if you accept it then it is really good.”
Merkel pointed out that his local team-mates were interested in his past career and he would like to see more of them try their luck in Europe, though he accepts it is easier said than done.
“The players ask about Europe and how players train there. One difference there is that we train in Europe in the morning while here we do so in the evening and that is new for us.
“It is more difficult for Saudis to go to Europe than it is for us to come from Europe to Saudi Arabia, the culture is easier. You have more time to adapt here. There is also prayer time and in Europe they don’t have that even for Muslim players. I never saw them having prayer time. In Europe you can train or play when it is prayer time,” he added.
In terms of quality, however, there would be no issues.
Merkel said: “I have seen in six or seven months a lot of young players who are exciting. They have a very good technique, and they are fast with good skills. The national team also plays good football and are always trying to make things happen.
“I enjoy it. I have a contract for one more year but in football you never know. I have really enjoyed my time here and want to stay next year and develop with the team.”
But first, a shot at glory on Sunday. “We can win, I know it for sure,” he added.