The only club to win two successive editions of the AFC Champions League since the tournament’s 2003 revamp, Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad have proven beyond doubt that they are a force to be reckoned with on the Asian stage.
Central to the Jeddah giants’ continental success over the past decade has been defender Hamad Al Montashari, a lynchpin of the side’s 2004 and 2005 AFC Champions League victories and a leading light of their FIFA Club World Cup campaign six years ago.
Arguably the 29-year-old’s finest hour in club football came in 2004, when he followed a goal in Al Ittihad’s semi-final defeat of Korea Republic’s Jeonbuk Motors with a commanding performance in an epic final, as his team came from behind against Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma to win the trophy. On Wednesday, Al Ittihad and Al Montashari meet another Korea Republic side, FC Seoul, in their AFC Champions League quarter-final, first leg.
Al Montashari’s experience at the highest level will be invaluable as the tournament enters its critical stages, and talking to FIFA.com, the 2005 Asian Player of the Year insists that his side’s dream of a third championship title can only be realised if every member of the team plays to their potential.
“Of course I’ve got a lot of experience having played in previous tournaments,” said Al Montashari, “but a number of my teammates were also part of the side that won the 2004 and 2005 Champions League, so the experience is pretty evenly spread.”
The Saudi Arabia international has nothing but respect for Al Ittihad’s quarter-final opponents and was open about the challenge facing his side: “It will be a very tough game. We’ve been in the tournament for no more than a few days and this will be only our second match, not to mention the fact that the South Koreans are very well prepared and are well into their domestic season. We just want to come away with the three points in front of our home crowd and we expect a lot of support.”
In addition to his solid presence at the back the multi-talented Saudi is no less proud of his goal-scoring abilities. “I come forward for set-pieces,” Al Montashari explained, “because 70 per cent of goals come from free-kicks and I’ve got something of a gift when it comes to aerial balls. Generally I rely on anticipation and instinct. I just time my jump and knock it in. It’s happened on more than a few occasions!”
His semi-final winner against Jeonbuk is a particularly fond memory. “It really stamped our presence on the game,” he said. “We were level at home, 1-1 going into the final minutes of the match and I managed to knock in the winner. It was an important goal because we went to South Korea with a win and drew 2-2, putting us through to the final where we beat another Korean outfit in Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.”
If 2004 had been a successful year, there was even greater success just around the corner, with the indefatigable defender carrying off the 2005 AFC Champions League title and participating in the FIFA Club World Cup with Al Ittihad, not to mention qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany as a member of the Saudi national team, an all-round effort that justly won him that accolade of 2005 Asian Player of the Year.
Al Montashari remembers the FIFA Club World Cup as an important stepping-stone in his side’s development. “Taking part in the Club World Cup was definitely very important,” he said. “Al Ittihad played quality football that showcased the high standards of the Asian game, reflected in our more than respectable fourth place finish. We hope to continue where we left off.”
Al Ittihad were within touching distance of a berth at the FIFA Club World Cup in 2009, when a 2-1 loss to Pohang Steelers in the AFC Champions League final put them out of contention. Al Montashari refuses to dwell on the disappointments of the past.
He said: “We finished that game then forgot it. The Steelers side we played in 2009 is nothing like FC Seoul. We’ve prepared well for this match. It’ll be tricky for sure, because FC Seoul are a strong, well-organized outfit with a number of domestic titles to their name, but then again we’ve got the self-belief and determination to take a home win into the return leg in South Korea.”
When it comes to Al Ittihad’s chances against the other seven quarter-finalists, Al Montashari is blunt: “Everyone’s got an equal chance. No team who gets this far is there by accident, so of course they’re all strong sides and up for the challenge. We’re just looking for a win on Wednesday and we’ll go from there.”
Regaining a title they have not won since 2005 is the biggest motivator for the Jeddah-based team, which remains the last West Asian club to win the tournament. For Al Montashari the explanation for East Asia’s dominance over the last five years is simple: “It’s not that the standards have slipped in West Asia, but rather that East Asian sides have really come on in recent years.”
“I just hope we can bring the trophy back to West Asia this year,” he concluded, “and hopefully restore some glory to the region and to Saudi football in particular. We’ve won the Champions League twice in a row before, and now we want it for a third time.”