There was little to get excited about if you’re an Al-Hilal fan in their recent 1-0 loss to bottom-placed Al-Batin that all but ended their faint hopes of retaining the Saudi Pro League title.
But on the hour mark came a moment worth just as much, if not more than the three points on offer — the return to action of dashing full-back Yasser Al-Shahrani.
Almost five months had passed since his sickening injury at last year’s FIFA World Cup in the Green Falcons’ memorable victory over eventual champions, the Lionel Messi-led Argentina.
As the clock ticked down toward 90 minutes and Saudi Arabia held a slender 2-1 lead, every player in green knew they needed to put their body on the line to ensure the scoreline stayed as it was.
As bodies flung to save shots, block shots and frustrate Argentina, no one epitomised that all-or-nothing attitude more than Al-Shahrani.
Half way through the allotted eight minutes of stoppage time, Al-Shahrani tracked his man as a long ball was played into the Argentine penalty area.
As goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Owais came out to collect the ball, his knees and the entire weight of his solidly built 185cm frame smashed into the face and chest of a helpless Al-Shahrani, who was knocked out and lay stricken with severe injuries; the extent of which would not be revealed until he arrived at Doha’s Hamad Hospital.
The panic and grief was written all over the face of Al-Owais as he saw his bloodied teammate motionless on the ground.
The national team veteran required emergency surgery to stop internal bleeding, before being airlifted to Riyadh’s National Guard hospital where he underwent further emergency surgery on his pancreas, followed by reconstructive surgery on his fractured jaw and broken facial bones.
They were injuries normally associated with severe road trauma, not those of an athlete playing football.
The 30-year-old underwent multiple surgeries and a lengthy, and no doubt at times exhausting, recovery process.
But after 143 days on the sidelines, with a Batman-style protective mask, Al-Shahrani returned to the fold in a welcome boost just days out from another AFC Champions League final.
He returned to training the week earlier and as he did so his teammates created a guard of honor as they welcomed him back into the fold.
That he was handed the captain’s armband for the final 30 minutes of his return was more than just a token gesture and says everything about his standing as a leader within the club. Now in his 11th season for the club, alongside the likes of Salem Al-Dawsari and Salman Al-Faraj, he is part of the furniture at Al-Hilal.
This week, again, he came off the bench in the second half as Al-Hilal scored a confidence-boosting 2-0 win over fierce rivals Al-Nassr, to dent the latter’s hopes of clinching this year’s Roshn Saudi League title.
Speaking after that game, a beaming Al-Shahrani thanked all fans, not just those wearing blue, for their support in his recovery and return to the game.
“I’m happy to be back on the pitch and grateful to everyone in Saudi, not just Al-Hilal fans,” he said in a pitchside interview.
“Everyone has been asking about me and supporting me on my recovery. I’m in good condition but I have to keep wearing the protective mask for two months.”
It’s a small price to pay to be back on the field, especially at such an exciting time for Al-Hilal.
This weekend they take on Al-Ittihad in the King’s Cup semifinal in Jeddah, but all attention is on the AFC Champions League final, to be played over two legs against Japanese giants Urawa Red Diamonds on April 29 and May 6.
It will mark Al-Hilal’s fifth Champions League final in the past decade, and remarkably their third against Urawa in the past five tournaments.
Al-Shahrani has been there for every one of those finals, playing every minute of the finals in 2014, 2017 and 2019 before coming off the bench late in 2021.
While he is unlikely to start, his leadership and experience will be invaluable over the next fortnight as Al-Hilal look to become the first team since Al-Ittihad almost two decades ago to successfully defend their AFC Champions League title.
All of that would have felt like a dream as Al-Shahrani lay stricken on the turf at the Lusail Stadium on a hot Doha afternoon last November.
Now he can dream of joining an elite group of players to have won the AFC Champions League on three separate occasions.
It would be a just reward for a player who gave so much of himself in the pursuit of ultimate glory for his country.