The boots of Sami Al Jaber may have been hung up two years ago, but the Saudi Arabian legend was still busy maintaining his fitness in the gym when FIFA.com called by to discuss his playing career and current activities. Taking a break from training, the former striker revealed he now runs a successful sporting services business, which keeps him involved with the game that made him a legend.
'The Legend' is, in fact, the favourite of the many nicknames he earned through his exploits on the field. "I like to be called 'The Legend' because I broke many records that I am proud of and I believe they could stand the test of time for many years to come," he said.
Al Jaber is one of only two players to represent Saudi Arabia at all four of their FIFA World Cup™ finals appearances; a distinction that he is very proud of. "Reaching the World Cup finals was the best moment of my career," he remarked. "Actually, I believe our country deserved to reach the world's premier football competition even earlier but the good thing is that we did not miss a single competition since we made it to the USA in 1994."
The Al Hilal icon played an indispensable role in booking Saudi Arabia an appearance on American soil, scoring their first and setting up two more in a 4-3 victory over Iran which secured his country a first-ever place at the finals. There, after scoring in a 2-1 win over Morocco at the Giants Stadium, he helped the Saudis reach the Round of 16, where they fell victim to Sweden.
But Al Jaber was far from finished with the FIFA World Cup and following participations at France 1998 and Korea/Japan 2002, and after coming out of international retirement, he formed part of Marcos Paqueta's squad for the 2006 finals. Moreover, in a Group H game against Tunisia, the evergreen No9 joined an elite group of players, one comprising Uwe Seeler, Pele, Diego Maradona, Michael Laudrup and Henrik Larsson, to have scored in FIFA World Cups 12 years apart.
" ," Al Jaber commented. "When I scored my first goal ever in the World Cup finals against Morocco in 1994, I never thought or imagined that I was going to score again 12 years later."
It was very special to be placed in this elite bracket players and I think this is my best achievement as a player
Al Jaber's goal against Tunisia also made him Asia's joint-record scorer in the competition, on eight goals alongside Korea Republic's Ahn Jung-Hwan, but his FIFA World Cup experience was not exclusive to memorable moments. "Our humiliating 8-0 defeat by Germany in 2002 was the most disappointing moment in the football history of our nation. It was like a nightmare that you pray to God never to go through again," he explained.
Since his retirement, a consensus has developed that Saudi Arabia have become over-reliant on Yasser Al Qahtani, although Al Jaber does not see it that way. "Yasser is an outstanding player but we have other great players. I admit that reaching the World Cup finals won't be a guaranteed mission anymore though," he added.
The English experience
Al Jaber spent most of his career with Riyadh-based club Al Hilal, but did have a brief yet beneficial spell with Wolverhampton Wanderers in England. "I learned a lot from it and I became more mature after living the daily routine of a true professional player," he said.
Nevertheless, Al Jaber thinks players from Saudi Arabia are likely to struggle in Europe. "We in the Gulf region cannot blend in European football, because we come from a very different culture and we are not as physically strong as the Europeans.
To overcome this burden, Al Jaber believes the Saudis should hire top European coaches to oversee their development. "Sir Alex Ferguson advised me to concentrate more on our youth system and I am convinced that this is the best solution to develop our game," he said.
Al Jaber met the Scottish manager when Manchester United played Al Hilal in his testimonial in January, the 163-time-capped Saudi scoring in his side's 3-2 victory. And although he remains a fan of Real Madrid, Al Jaber was happy to see the Red Devils win the UEFA Champions League earlier this month. "Man United should come to Saudi Arabia again next year if they would like to keep their title," he joked.