As Saudi Arabia prepare to get their Fifa World Cup 2026 qualifying campaign up and running against Pakistan, one inclusion in Roberto Mancini’s squad has raised eyebrows across the country .
At just 16 years and 57 days, Al Ittihad forward Talal Haji has become the second-youngest player ever to be called up by the Green Falcons, behind only Ahmed Jamil, who made his debut in 1986 age 16 years and 53 days. The former Al Ittihad player went on to earn 117 caps.
By the time Saudi Arabia inevitably hosts the 2034 World Cup, for which it is the only bidder, Haji will, presumably, at age 27, be at the peak of his powers.
Among the current squad, he is perhaps the first name being nurtured with an eye on representing his nation at a home World Cup for the first time.
The rise of Haji over the past 18 months has been nothing short of extraordinary.
Having been spotted by scouts of his hometown club Al Ittihad, he was signed for the Under-17s side at the age of 14. He would soon establish himself as the main striker for the Saudi Arabia U17 national team, too.
In September 2022, he showed his natural scoring instinct in the Arab U17 Championships, leading Saudi Arabia to the semi-finals in Algeria and finishing the tournament as the top scorer with seven goals.
Nine months later, Haji was leading the line for the young Green Falcons in the AFC U17 Asian Cup in Thailand, where his brace against Tajikistan helped Saudi Arabia advance to the quarter-finals.
Commenting on his performances in Thailand, Saudi Arabia U23 head coach Bandar Al Jaithan described Haji as the new Majid Abdullah, likening him to the nation’s all-time top scorer, who had led them to Asian Cup titles in 1984 and 1988 as well as World Cup qualification in 1994.
“His movement off the ball, his technical ability and his finishing with either foot, all of these things remind me of the early days of Majed Abdullah,” said Al Jaithan, who in October called up Haji to the U23 national team for the first time.
In Saudi football, praise for a striker doesn’t come higher than being compared to the man who bagged 72 goals in 117 appearances for the national team, and that admiration for Haji’s potential was not limited to Al Jaithan.
In March, former Al Ittihad coach Nuno Espirito Santo invited Haji to train with the first team for the first time, well before his 16th birthday. And once the 2023/24 season began, Haji had officially been promoted to the senior ranks, making his first appearance in a Saudi Pro League matchday squad two days before turning 16 in September. A week later, he became the youngest player to feature in the SPL, coming on as a substitute for Brazilian forward Romarinho in the final minutes of the 2-1 win over Al Fateh, age 16 years and five days.
Haji’s senior football experience might be limited, but it is his combination of pace and physique that bely his age, as well as the level-headedness shown at every new experience, that makes him such an exciting prospect.
The first step towards leading the line for Saudi Arabia in 2034 starts on Thursday, and a potential debut against Pakistan.
Even if just for a few minutes, it would mark a historic moment for Haji and who knows, maybe for Saudi Arabian football.