Massad going for glory with Al Ahli
© AFP

Mohammed Massad was just 11-years-old when his older brother Khalid travelled with the Saudi Arabia national team to take part in the Kingdom’s first FIFA World Cup™ appearance at USA 1994.

Khalid and his team-mates gave a creditable showing on their debut, but as the young Mohammed watched his heroes defeat Belgium and Morocco before losing to Sweden in the Round of 16, little did he guess that one day he too would represent his country at a FIFA World Cup and become captain of Al Ahli, the team where his brother started out.

FIFA.com caught up with the defensive midfielder to chat about his stellar performance for the Jeddah club in the AFC Champions League, the FIFA World Cup and the national team’s recent woes.

Older brother Khalid achieved much in his career, not least of which were numerous appearances in international tournaments. His debut on the world stage came in 1987 at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Canada, swiftly followed by selection for the FIFA U-20 World Cup held in Chile the same year. For the senior team Khalid played at both USA 1994 and France 1998 in addition to three FIFA Confederations Cups.

For a younger sibling these feats were naturally inspiring, and Mohammed is not afraid to give credit to his brother for setting him on the path to footballing success: “I have enormous respect for Khalid, because I was always dreaming of being like him and achieving just some of the things he has done with club and country. He set a high benchmark.”

“When I was eight, I joined Al Ahli and stayed on until I reached the senior team," Mohammed said. “I played lots of important games for the club until at last they made me captain.”

To have three clubs in the last eight is a sign that Saudi football is making a comeback, and that should cheer up the supporters after the national team’s recent struggles.
Mohammed Massad, Al Ahli midfielder and Saudi Arabia international

The dream of playing at a FIFA World Cup came when Brazilian coach Marcos Paqueta selected him for the Saudi Arabia squad for Germany 2006. Though he only played nine minutes of the side’s final group game against Spain, the experience has stayed with him. “My World Cup didn’t last long, but just being there is a big deal. Even attending a global football carnival watched by millions is a significant experience, so imagine what playing there means, if only for a few minutes.”

“I benefitted a lot from Germany 2006,” he said. “Just being in the company of stars that people watch on TV all around the world was something beautiful.”

Mohammed Massad’s star has risen in tandem with his club’s fortunes. The player has been part of two successive Saudi Champions Cup wins and will be joining his team-mates and Jeddah-based rivals Al Ittihad in this year’s AFC Champions League, where he will be hoping Al Ahli can go beyond the last-eight for the first time.

But it may not be smooth sailing. Their quarter-final opponents are none other than veteran Asian contenders Sepahan, who in 2007 reached the tournament’s decider, earning them a place at the FIFA Club World Cup later that same year.

Massad is full of praise for the atmosphere in the team’s changing room, something he attributes to the influence of Czech coach Karel Jarolim, who took over the reins at Al Ahli in 2011: “There are many factors behind our recent success, but the most important is the affection the players have for each other and the mutual support they provide. It has a very positive effect: everyone is willing to give 100 per cent. Add to that the impact Jarolim has had on our style of play, and you begin to understand why the team is able to play with everything they’ve got.”

He also has appreciative words for Al Ahli’s fans: “They stick with us through thick and thin and have done so for many years. They play a huge role in the side’s success.”

The last push to the AFC Champions League final begins tomorrow, when they face off against their Iranian opponents in Isfahan. The sides have already met in Group C and Massad is cautiously optimistic: “We’ve got to this stage and we’re determined to go to win the tournament. Sepahan were in our group and we know a lot about them. I just hope we can win and go through.”

Al Ahli are not the only Saudi side in this year’s knockout rounds as the Jeddah team share the stage with city rivals Al Ittihad and Riyadh’s Al Hilal. Asked about the significance of this, Massad said: “To have three clubs in the last eight is a sign that Saudi football is making a comeback, and that should cheer up the supporters after the national team’s recent struggles. After all, club football is the foundation of the national side and if it is doing well, then the Saudi team will feel the benefit.”

“The national team has lost ground recently,” Massad concluded. "But make no mistake; it’s left its mark on continental and global football. I hope that our club’s success in Asia can give the Saudi team a boost in the near future.”