Sami Al Jaber has played at four World Cups and scored at three. The legend of Saudi Arabian and Asian football was there for the high of 1994 and the low of 2002 and in the days before his country returns to the global stage for the first time in 2006, he is feeling positive about 2018.
Few of the many millions that will be watching the opening game between hosts Russia and the Saudis believe that the West Asian team, which would give plenty for a striker of Al-Jaber’s quality, can get out of a group that also contains Uruguay and Egypt.
The 45 year-old, who made almost 150 international appearances, insists that the Green Falcons are on the right track though it remains to be seen whether it will be enough to emulate the second round appearance of 1994.
“We prepared well back in 1994,” Al-Jaber told ESPN FC. “We had been moved out of our clubs and had training camps in France and the U.S.
“We believed in ourselves. That is why we wanted to show what who were were because nobody knew. In America, they knew our name just because of the Gulf War but we showed something.”
They certainly did. A first-ever World Cup appearance was a tough one, against the Netherlands. After taking a first half lead, Holland came back with two strikes after the break to win 2-1.
“They had big names and great players. I was young but we sat together as a team and saw it as a challenge. We were playing for our country, our families and our brothers,” Al-Jaber said.
“After 15 minutes we were better than them. We controlled everything. We conceded two goals by mistakes but we took this confidence to the second game against Morocco and won.”
Then came the memorable game against Belgium — again a talented team — and that goal from Saeed Al-Owairan. The Saudi star ran past half of the Belgian side from inside his own half to score and send the Green Falcons into the second round.
“I had played with him and knew what he could do. That goal showed the confidence we had,” Al-Jaber recalled.
Then came a 1-0 loss to Sweden.
“It was played in 40 degrees,” he said. “We are from a hot country but we don’t play during the day.
“They had the perfect strategy. They scored early and made us run after the ball in the heat and that made it difficult.”
If the 1994 tournament was the high, the low came eight years later in Japan with three losses from three which included an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany.
“We didn’t prepare well for that World Cup,” Al-Jaber said. “There were a mess in the camps, some players came late, players who didn’t play in qualification but now it is history.
“Look at Brazil in 2014 and what happened to them. It can happen to anyone. We have to look forward and don’t have to think about 2002, that is in the past.”
Saudi Arabia’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup have been a lot smoother. Friday’s final warm-up against Germany in Leverkusen saw the score at 2-0 to the World Cup holders at half-time, but the Saudis fought back and ended up losing 2-1. New coach Juan Antonio Pizzi only took the job in November but the Argentine has produced some decent performances in his short tenure.
“Against Germany, we could see that tactically, the coach is heading in the right direction,” Al-Jaber said. “We are pressing in the middle and we can cause problems on the counter-attack.
“We are getting the two full-backs forward, they are fast and can support the transition from defence to attack very quickly. This is a good strategy. Some players are at a high level and can compete.
“If they can compete with midfielders like Toni Kroos then they can compete at the World Cup. I am positive about the Saudi team but that doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to go to the next round.”
In order to get there, Al-Jaber, like many others, believes it is all about the opener against Russia on Thursday.
“It won’t be easy in Moscow against the host but the players have had great support from the Crown Prince and he will attend the match and that will give them a boost,” Al-Jaber said.
“The team has to prepare mentally and psychologically and everything. We have some good players in good form and they can do it. If they get a good result then it would be huge.
“The second match is most difficult against Uruguay and the third one will be tough against one of the best teams in Africa.”
Again, it comes back to self-belief for the man who enjoyed a short spell with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2000.
“Confidence is everything. If you feel under pressure after 15 minutes then you can’t control yourself against the hosts,” he said. “We had this in the first 10-15 minutes against Germany. When we got confidence during the match, we matched them.
“In the last 20 minutes I saw the national team of Saudi Arabia at the best level of physical preparation and I saw Saudi Arabia match Germany. We are moving forward.”
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.