RIYADH: Some players would dream of playing in the final of the AFC Champions League just once in their career — to experience the buzz, the pressure and excitement that comes with playing on such a stage.
Those that are very fortunate will get the opportunity to play in two, such is the luck of those that play for the continent’s biggest clubs.
But to play in four is simply mind-blowing.
That is exactly what Al-Hilal’s veteran goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf will achieve this week when he pulls on the gloves to face South Korea’s Pohang Steelers at the cauldron that is Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium.
Remarkably, the 34 year old is still young enough to feature in even more finals given the dominance of Al-Hilal in this competition over the past half-decade, with Tuesday marking their third final in the past five years.
“As a football player, it’s important to have ambition to win each title,” he told Arab News.
“I want to keep playing for another four or five years and my target is to play in the final every year.”
Having only won one of his previous three encounters, he will be hoping Tuesday evening’s match will turn out differently to the last time he faced a Korean team in the final.
That was in 2011. Having made his Al-Hilal debut back in 2004 as a fresh-faced 17 year old, the Riyadh native opted for a sea change after three years of limited opportunities, joining Jeddah’s Al-Ahli in 2007, and five years later making his first appearance in the final of Asia’s showpiece club competition.
On that occasion, the Saudi giants were no match for a slick Ulsan Hyundai side, captained by a certain Kwak Tae-hwi who would go on to play for three years with Al-Hilal, leaving Riyadh to return to Seoul in 2016 at the same time as Al-Mayouf returned to play for his boyhood club.
Another final, back with Al-Hilal in 2017, resulted in another loss, this time against Japan’s Urawa Reds, before Al-Mayouf and his Al-Hilal teammates got their revenge on the Japanese heavyweights with a dominant 3-0 win in the 2019 final.
Speaking exclusively to Arab News just days before this year’s final, which takes on extra significance for both clubs as they seek to become the first club to win four continental club championships to become Asia’s most successful club side, Al-Mayouf said those losses earlier in his career acted as extra motivation come 2019.
“Of course, the first two finals helped (motivate) me for the third final in 2019,” he admitted.
“The first final, I was very young, and for the second final we faced some ‘conditions’ against Urawa, but for sure the experience helped for the third final.”
Reflecting on that 2019 triumph, Al-Mayouf said that he knew weeks before the final that Al-Hilal would break their ACL title drought.
“I felt that we would win after we defeated Al-Sadd in the semifinal,” he said.
“There was such a positive atmosphere within the team when we traveled from Riyadh to Tokyo with a 1-0 win from the first leg.
“We faced a lot of pressure from their fans. It’s not easy to play in that atmosphere, but we succeeded in winning the title.”
With this being Al-Hilal’s third final in five years, and with a handful of players having played in all three, they come into this game with the big game experience across the board that Pohang lack, and that holds them in good stead, according to Al-Mayouf, who said that they know they must approach the match as they would any regular season game.
“We will prepare ourselves as we would any other important match,” he said.
“It’s just one of the matches during the knockout stages of the AFC Champions League. We will prepare just like any other important match.”
Should Al-Hilal finish 2021 with another continental title, which would set them apart as Asia’s most dominant and successful football club, it would cap what has been a remarkable year for Saudi football.
For the first time since 2012, two Saudi clubs made the semifinal of the AFC Champions League — with Al-Hilal defeating Riyadh rivals Al-Nassr in a classic encounter last month — while the national team will finish 2021 undefeated in the final round of Asian Qualifiers for Qatar 2022, sitting four points clear on top of Group B with one foot already in Qatar.
With his international career behind him, having retired in 2019, Al-Mayouf said that this is a “golden period” for Saudi football.
“We have talented players, and every year we have new talented players coming through,” he said.
“The national team has done very well in qualification. They are very good tactically thanks to the coach, and my dream is for the Saudi national team to qualify for the World Cup and for Al-Hilal to win the AFC Champions League.
“These are beautiful days for Saudi football.”