The best-known Syrian striker playing today, Firas Al Khatib has won multiple honours in Kuwaiti football, first with Al Arabi and now with their traditional rivals Al Qadissiyah, whom he joined in a controversial deal in 2009.
Although Al Khatib has been hugely successful at club level, he has yet to make his mark with the national team, who failed to make it past the first round at the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 27-year-old Syrian ace spoke frankly about the secret of his success at club level and his Asian Cup heartache with the national team.
Al Khatib got his start in his native Homs in 2000 playing for local heavyweights Al Karama. “It was my first real home,” he says of the club. “They raised me and I owe them a big debt of gratitude. No amount of praise could do them justice. I have many memories from my time there and really hope the team does well and goes on to greater things.”
After two seasons with Al Karama, the player moved to Kuwait, where his fledgling career took off with Al Nasr, for whom he netted 13 times in just 20 matches. In 2003, Al Khatib signed for fellow Kuwaitis Al Arabi, where he would taste genuine success, winning the Emir Cup no fewer than three times as well as the Crown Prince Cup and the Super Cup. It was also while on the books of Al Arabi that he joined Qatari outfit Al Ahli for a brief loan spell in 2005, a sojourn he remembers fondly.
“It was an amazing time,” he says of the Al Ahli adventure, “The best thing was that I got to play alongside Josep Guardiola – that was just incredible – not to mention my other teammates. I made a lot of good friends during my time in Qatar.”
Although much of the aforementioned cup successes would follow on his return to Kuwait, Al Arabi’s failure to win a league title was a major factor in his decision to throw his lot in with their traditional rivals, Al Qadissiyah. And while Al Arabi’s supporters regard his 2009 transfer as a betrayal, the man himself has always maintained that, as a professional footballer, he has to put his career first.
“The main reason for moving to Al Qadissiyah was my desire to win the league,” he explains, “and I wanted to play in the AFC Cup as well. If I’m honest, the money was a factor, too. I’m a professional player, so there’s no room for sentiment. At the end of the day, football is my job.”
As for the reaction from Al Arabi’s fans, the player had this to say: “There are fanatical supporters who aren’t happy but, personally speaking, I still have a lot of affection and respect for the Al Arabi fans, and some of them feel the same way about me.”
The move to Al Qadissiyah turned out to be an inspired move for the Syrian front man, who was nominated for Asian Player of the Year in 2009 before going on to win the league title twice in succession. Al Khatib has much to be proud of this season. As top scorer in the Kuwait League with 14 goals, he has been instrumental in Al Qadissiyah’s progress to their 14th league crown and was also part of the team that reached the finals of the 2010 AFC Cup, eventually losing to Al Ittihad of Syria in a penalty shootout.
Though Al Khatib came in for criticism for his role in this defeat – he sent the deciding penalty wide – the 27-year-old seems unaffected by the experience, insisting he is just keen to make amends by winning the trophy this year.
“Al Qadissiyah can win this competition,” he states. “They just have to keep doing what they’ve been doing. As for that penalty, lots of players have missed spot-kicks a lot more important than that one, like in the World Cup Final for instance. It’s part of a player’s life.”
Disappointment with Syria
Al Khatib has never managed to replicate the success he has enjoyed as a club footballer with the Syrian national team, despite being widely regarded as his country’s foremost striker.
Asked why this has been the case, the player replied: “The Syrian team is weak and that’s the main reason I don’t do myself justice when I play for them. Look at our failure to perform at the 2011 Asian Cup, for example. Professionalism is vital to any player’s development and it’s what helped me raise my own standards. However, the national side’s inability to compete made me look bad.”
This year’s AFC Asian Cup, which was Al Khatib’s first appearance at a major football tournament, would ultimately end in disappointment for the player and his team-mates after Syria failed to qualify from a group that included Japan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
“I was really looking forward to the Asian Cup, but a few things happened that prevented me from being at my best. First and foremost there was the injury that caused me to miss the first game. I came on as a substitute in the next match against Japan and scored a goal from the penalty spot,” he explains. “As I said, though, Syrian football lacks professionalism, and that’s why we were knocked out of that competition.”
Putting that disappointment behind them, Syria are now focusing on the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, starting with a two-legged pre-qualifying showdown with Tajikistan in July. With French coach Claude Le Roy now at the national team's helm, Al Khatib is daring to dream of his country’s first ever appearance at a FIFA World Cup, saying: “I hope my team-mates and I can take Syria to the World Cup and that we qualify for the Asian Cup in the future.”
However, the player concluded our interview by insisting his side need to take it one step at a time and take nothing for granted when their campaign gets underway in July. “We’re aiming to get off to a good start in the qualifiers especially now we’ve signed an internationally renowned coach like Claude Le Roy. We won’t be taking Tajikistan lightly. We played them in the World Cup qualifying rounds in 2004 and we only got past them with difficulty. So, rest assured, there will be no complacency."