The semi-final of the AFC Champions League 2011 saw Al Ittihad lose 5-3 on aggregate to Korean giants Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC, but for one Saudi player, striker Naif Hazazi, last October’s encounter evokes particularly bitter memories.
Just 12 minutes into the return leg, the 23-year-old picked up a red card, a dismissal that tilted the game decisively in his opponents' favour. This Tuesday, nearly a year on from the incident, Al Ittihad are set to take on China PR’s Guangzhou Evergrande in the second leg of the tournament’s quarter-finals.
FIFA.com caught up with the talented Hazazi to chat about his record in Asia’s premier club competition and his side’s chances of reclaiming the title in 2012.
All in the past
Hazazi is adamant that his semi-final red card is now behind him, though he insists the referee’s decision was “unfair, because I really didn’t deserve to be sent off. At the end of the day, I learned from what happened and I’m trying to make sure I don’t forget it!
“Personally speaking, I develop with every passing season and this year I’ve performed to a high standard,” he went on to say. “We’ve reached the quarter-finals and we hope we can go all the way to the final. It might sound a little exaggerated, but with each new day I learn from my mistakes and my experience grows.”
It is hard to disagree with his assessment. In this year’s Champions League he has scored a total of seven goals, including two in their first-leg encounter with Guangzhou a fortnight ago in Jeddah.
Hazazi is quick to give credit to his club for his superb form: “Al Ittihad have always stood by me and these goals are my gift to the fans who have never failed to give us terrific support.”
Asked about the importance of the continental club championship, the Saudi Arabia international had this to say: “It’s a very significant tournament for me because it allows me to make my mark with my club and shine on the Asian stage. I hope we can continue our winning ways and reach the FIFA Club World Cup, so I can score at that competition – which is a dream of mine.”
Respecting your opponent
However, no-one expects Al Ittihad’s Chinese opponents to roll over. With Italian legend Marcello Lippi at the helm, Guangzhou surprised everyone in Jeddah by taking a 2-1 lead into the half-time break.
Hazazi’s two goals were instrumental in helping his side make it 4-2 by full time but the experience has taught him to be wary: “We came back strong after going behind in the first half and all credit to our guys for their persistence, but it tells us the Chinese will not be pushovers come Tuesday.
“We have to respect a side that played so well in the opening leg,” he continued. “They’re a great outfit, no doubt, but Al Ittihad have fantastic players and I hope we can defend our lead and go through to the semis.”
A star on and off the pitch
He may be young but the 6ft forward found stardom early, breaking into the Ittihad first team in 2007 and making his debut appearance in the national side the following year.
The ever-modest Hazazi has used his fame to support a wide range of charitable activities, making morale-boosting hospital visits and promoting campaigns to raise public awareness of social issues.
“It’s something that all well-known people do in Saudi Arabia,” he explained. “Whether you’re a footballer, an actor or a politician, it’s a must. I believe that it comes down to the individual’s own character. People can benefit enormously, and it could be an area to pursue when my sporting career comes to an end.”
As for his star-status, Hazazi is modesty itself: “I don’t think I’m a huge star, but I hope I can keep going and achieve my goals. I always want to do well, whether it’s winning the Champions League with Al Ittihad or representing my country at the FIFA World Cup.”
His dreams are ambitious, and only time will tell if he can fulfil them. What is certain, however, is that young Hazazi is rightfully regarded as one of the rising stars of Saudi football.