Saudi Arabia have no option but to beat Côte d’Ivoire this Friday if they are to qualify for the second round, and the Sons of the Desert will be banking on striker Naji Majrashgi to set them on the right course. caught up with the forward who set Saudi pulses racing with his goal against Mexico in the second game.

The most immediately striking thing about Naji Majrashgi is just how small he is. He has that waif-like appearance commonly found among 14-year-old schoolboys, yet when he speaks that impression is quickly dispelled. The Saudi forward is serious… very serious. Even when reliving his strike against the Mexicans, the only goal scored so far by Saudi Arabia at this FIFA World Youth ChampionshipTM and one that send the crowd wild in Al Aïn, his lips betray not the merest hint of a smile. “Ahmed Ateef played a very precise pass through to me on the edge of the box. I tried not to take more than two touches on the ball, shot very early and scored. I felt overwhelming joy at the time, but I rapidly pulled myself together and got on with the game.”

Majrashgi’s attitude might be mistaken for haughtiness, but it soon becomes apparent that it can be put down to concentration. For the Saudis can still qualify, providing they succeed in beating the Ivorians this Friday: “We have just one option: to win. We need to do whatever it takes to get this victory, scraping a 1-0 win if necessary. A victory by a single goal should take us through.”

The striker knows it will be a tall order, but he has unshakeable faith: “The Côte d’Ivoire attackers are very gifted, both technically and physically, but I think that our defence, despite having made a few errors, is also technically excellent and difficult to pull out of position, so we should be able to handle them.”

Even being consigned to the bench for the first game did nothing to undermine his winner’s mentality. Instead, he emphasises the positive aspects of squad rotation: “I am part of a group, and we all need to stick together. Any substitute who comes onto the pitch has to add something extra to the team. This is what I tried to do against Ireland, but without success. Of course I was bitterly disappointed.”

A lack of ruthlessness
The Sons of the Desert have impressed observers with their vibrant play, especially in the attacking third. Majrashgi, a substitute in the first game and starter in the second, is an integral element of this penetrating force, and together with Eisa Al Mahyani and Ahmed Ateef, forms a trio bursting with vitality.

The problem lies in their finishing, which is not quite there at the moment. “We have had some bad luck in front of goal, but the most important thing is we’re creating plenty of chances and have presented a very high overall standard of play. Yes, I would have liked us to score more, of course. But against Côte d’Ivoire, I’ll be doing my utmost to boost our tally,” the young man is at pains to emphasise.

A native of Riyadh, Majrashgi earned his spurs at Al Shabab, the club where he still plays to this day. And while he dreams of playing abroad, he is down to earth about the practicalities involved. “I would love to be able to play in Europe, at a big club like Real Madrid, Manchester United or Valencia. But it is the stuff of dreams, as all these countries are far away and their cultures are not the same.” This 19-year-old Thierry Henri fan is clearly mature beyond his years. Let us hope, for his sake, that his seriousness reaps dividends against Côte d’Ivoire. And who knows, perhaps then we will be treated to a smile lighting up his teenage face…