Sami Al Jaber: 'I couldn't sleep for two days after Saudi Arabia beat Argentina'

The former striker is thrilled by the kingdom's football developments as they bid to make their own World Cup history against Mexico

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By his own admission, Sami Al Jaber was so overcome by emotion that his friends, former teammates, and even young son, did not recognise him.

But maybe the moment allowed for it. Demanded it, even.

Saudi Arabia had just beaten Argentina, two-time World Cup winners and among the favourites to add a third in Qatar, in one of the greatest upsets in tournament history.

The second-lowest ranked team in the finals, Saudi came from behind in their Group C opener at Lusail Stadium, stunning the current Copa America champions, captained by Lionel Messi and unbeaten in 36 matches.

Al Jaber, a former striker and one of the most celebrated Saudi footballers of all-time, was present at Lusail. Well, in body anyway.

"I was screaming in VIP section like a big fan who didn’t play football in his life," he says now, from inside the official Fifa hotel in Doha. Al Jaber is in Qatar both to support his national team and in his role as Adidas brand ambassador.

"It’s different when you’re playing, when you’re coaching, when you’re a president of a club. You can influence the game. I prefer to be a player."

Needless to say, it took a while to come down from the Argentina high.

“I couldn’t sleep for two days,” Al Jaber says.

Having represented Saudi at four of their six World Cups, Al Jaber knows more than a thing or two about competing at football’s showpiece event.

Sami Al Jaber. Photo: Adidas

Last week, as he tried to take in what was unfolding at Lusail – what had unfolded in the remarkable 2-1 triumph against Argentina – his mind was transported back to 1994. Al Jaber was part of that vaunted side who registered group wins against Morocco and Belgium to reach the tournament’s knockouts stage.

Now some time later, they remain the only team from the kingdom to have progressed that far.

“The round of 16, it’s the dream of everyone, from the biggest to the smallest,” Al Jaber says. “After what happened in 1994, it’s a dream to go back, to go more and more. Because everyone says 1994, what a coincidence to go to the round of 16. And we could have gone further back then.”

The present side might just match it. Although Saudi followed Argentina and the win heard around the football world with a 2-0 defeat to Poland, they deserved something from Match Day 2.

For the majority, they outplayed Poland, squandering numerous chances to score. The best fell to captain Salem Al Dawsari, match-winner against Argentina, but his penalty just before half-time was saved. It would have pulled Saudi level.

Still, chasing that last-16 spot, chasing history also, Saudi fate remains in their hands. Defeat Mexico in the decider on Wednesday – no easy task - and this side will emulate their famous predecessors from 28 years ago. Almost three decades has been too long a wait.

“To go to the next round is also good for the country," Al Jaber says. "The expectation was very low before the competition; the group is not easy. But now everyone, not only the 35 million, but also the 26 players, and everyone, the expectation is high. But it's not easy."

Saudi Arabia's Sami Al Jaber (right) in action against Marcelo Balboa of the United States at the World Cup in 1994. Allsport

In manager Herve Renard, Al Jaber believes Saudi have the perfect personality to prosper. The Frenchman, who masterminded Africa Cup of Nations success with Zambia and Ivory Coast, has been superb since taking charge three years ago following Saudi’s disappointing group exit from the Asian Cup.

His team-talks have acquired a level of fame on their own, first in Saudi and throughout the region, and then since Argentina, across the wider game. Snippets of Renard's stirring speech, released on social media, from before the group opener, and again at half-time as his team trailed 1-0, quickly went viral.

It is little wonder the Saudi Arabia Football Federation were keen to tie Renard earlier this year to a contract through until 2027. Although the length of the deal was unexpected - Saudi have had 18 different managers in 22 years - it seemed obvious reward for leading the team to Qatar as qualification group winners ahead of Japan and Australia.

“After three years with the boys, he’s mentally, psychologically, very close to them,” Al Jaber says. “He understands the needs, because inside he takes everything from them, they are listening to him, they believe in him, they believe in each other.

Saudi fans celebrate victory over Argentina

“I know the mentality of Herve; I met him a lot because we’re neighbours in Riyadh. His mentality is a warrior - he’s brilliant on this - he knows that football is not just a game, he knows they can do a lot if they’re humble, they keep their feet on the ground, and they just think about what happened is what happened.

“Herve believes in the country, he believes in the boys, he believes about the work in Saudi Arabia. He believes in the Ministry of Sports and the federation. He knows that we’re working more professionally now, it’s not just like work for show or whatever. He knows this generation can take it to a higher level.

“We made history against Argentina, but the history is just the game. It’s one of the biggest surprises in the history of the World Cup. But this is the only thing. The past is the past.”

Al Jaber, though, feels the future is bright. He attributes that to a long-term plan put in place within Saudi football, from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – typically referred to in the kingdom as “MBS" - through both the Ministry of Sport and the football federation.

Clubs are governed better, encouraged not to spend beyond their means, as had been the case too often in the past.

“A lot of change happened recently in the country, not only sports,” Al Jaber says. “We’re in the right direction. MBS is a clever man and he’s looking after everything in the country.

“But sports for us, unlike many years ago, is just not sports now. It’s something reflecting exactly the country, how we became open with anything now.

“I think what happened [against Argentina] is what the government did, what MBS did for sports in general and football specifically.”

The 16-team Saudi Professional League has become stronger for strategy, Al Jaber says. He points to the steady increase in the number of foreign players - this season, clubs can register eight - as a reason why standards have improved within the domestic game and, in turn, the national team.

“All the clubs - small, medium, big - are treated equally," Al Jaber says. "They give them money, spend it in the right way, make the balance, don’t spend more than your income. All this is under control.

"And the foreign players were raised from six, to seven, to eight. Why? Because the vision was that the Saudi players then have to be at least not far away from that level.

“And you cannot buy just a player off YouTube like before. They have to be something. Bring the best. Because, at the end, he’s coming not just to play - all the generations learn from him."

Lessons have been learnt, it appears, from the past.

"The work from the Ministry of Sport and [Saudi minister of sports] Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal in general, the federation also, was amazing," Al Jaber says. "It doesn’t happen in the history to see a coach staying three or four years. If you see the professional work, everything is like a vision.

“They are following the vision exactly. Sticking with it. It’s not like you wake up one day, or one result, and can sack [the coach] or change it. I mean, there are cases, but I can see the work of the federation and the Ministry of Sport is really top, professional.

“So, again, it takes me to what happened [against Argentina]. When you believe in yourself, when you believe in your country, and you believe in your leaders. When you believe that everything in the world has changed.”

Updated: November 30, 2022, 5:31 AM