When the FIFA U-20 World Cup Columbia 2011 kicks off on 29 July, the eyes of football aficionados everywhere will be on those players already tagged as the stars of tomorrow: the young talent expected to shape the future of the world game.
However, for Ahmed and Abdoh Otayf, both members of the Saudi Arabian squad at the global U-20 showpiece at UAE 2003, their attention will be on the Estadio Centenario on 31 July, where younger brother Abdullah is in line to turn out for the Saudis against Group D opponents Croatia. And given their first-hand experience, who better to give their younger sibling advice before he heads off to Columbia?
Abdullah was just a boy when his two brothers took part in the FIFA U-20 World Cup eight years ago. Elder brother Ahmed was in the starting line-up for all three of Saudi Arabia’s group matches while Abdoh played in two: coming off the bench against Mexico and starting the national side’s final game against Côte D’Ivoire.
“I was only 11 at the time but I managed to follow their progress,” recalls 18-year-old midfielder Abdullah, when speaking to FIFA.com. “They performed well, and even though the team failed to qualify for the next round, they both took a lot out of the experience. It was a great opportunity for them. They got to play in a major tournament and rub shoulders with players from all these different countries.”
Ahmed has his own memories of that competition on Emirati soil: “It was beautiful, but sad at the same time. To take part in a top-flight international competition like the U-20 World Cup was just incredible, but then again it was a blow to go out in the group stages. All in all the World Cup was a positive experience.
“But it was the final game against Côte D’Ivoire that hit us the hardest,” continues Ahmed, who like Abdoh has gone on to become a full Saudi international. “We needed a win to qualify for the knockout stages and, though the team turned out a great performance, we missed out on some easy chances and didn’t make it through.”
For Abdoh’s part, he believes turning out at UAE 2003 that gave him the motivation and self-belief to make the senior Saudi set-up. Indeed, the midfielder was part of the squad which reached the final of the AFC Asian Cup in 2007, while both he and Ahmed travelled to the 2011 edition in Qatar.
“The U-20 World Cup gave us hunger and self-confidence,” Abdoh explains. “Plus, it was a real education; a chance to experience other cultures. On a personal level, taking part did a lot for my character. It gave me the impetus I needed to move my career on for club and country.”
Saudi Arabia’s qualification for Colombia 2011 owed much to the efforts of the youngest of the trio, with Abdullah playing in all five matches of his country’s 2010 AFC U-19 Championship campaign in China. Indeed, it was the midfield man who fired a crucial equaliser against quarter-final opponents Uzbekistan with just three minutes left on the clock. That goal took the match into extra time, where Fahad Al Johani’s winner sealed a semi-final berth and with it the Saudis’ passage to Colombia.
“The tournament was superb,” says Abdullah of his time in China. “I can’t put into words how happy I felt after scoring that goal against Uzbekistan. Praise God, we won the game and qualified for Colombia.”
Yet Saudi Arabia can expect a tough challenge at the elite competition, when they will form part of a Group D also featuring Croatia, who finished fourth at the UEFA U-19 European Championship, African champions Nigeria and tournament debutants Guatemala.
Despite the size of the task ahead, however, Abdullah is certainly not lacking in confidence. “The Saudi Arabian FA have hired Brazilian coach Rogerio Lourenco, after all. He took Brazil to the final of the U-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009, so it’s not impossible for him to do the same with us. The trophy’s up for grabs and I hope we can win it!”
What's more, the Otayf family’s footballing feats are not limited to Ahmed, Abdoh and Abdullah, with striker Saqr playing alongside his siblings for Saudi Premier League outfit Al Shabab. Meanwhile a fifth brother, Ali, is also looking to carve out a niche for himself in the professional game.
For eldest brother Ahmed, this remarkable concentration of talent suggests that football is truly in the family’s blood. “We’ve all got the talent: it’s a gift from God. But the reason we’ve all made a career out of the game is because we really love it. There aren’t many other families like ours in football.
“I just hope he’s physically and mentally prepared for Colombia, because taking part in a FIFA U-20 World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he continues, when asked if he had any advice for Abdullah. “He should also try not to let his self-belief be shaken, especially given how talented he is.”
For his part, Abdoh feels that his younger brother has a lot to offer, though is not the finished article yet. “I’ve followed his progress since he was little, so I’m well-placed to say that Abdullah’s got an excellent football brain.
"Thanks to his vision and the way he plays he can really help get a team playing together. He thinks quickly and has tidy distribution, but he needs to take more care with his shooting and the accuracy of his long passes. Those are his weaknesses and he needs to work on them.”
Abdullah is only too willing to credit his brothers for his progress, particularly via the regular post-match gatherings where the siblings evaluate each other’s performances. “Ahmed and Abdoh have been a huge help to me,” says the ambitious youngster, as the interview concludes.
“They’ve given me a lot of advice that’s been very useful for my career. My ultimate dream is to play in the World Cup, while I also want to win a lot of titles and follow in my brothers’ footsteps.”