Syrian lion ready to roar
© AFP

For Syria captain Firas Al Khatib, achievement comes naturally. Thus, on the eve of last week’s AFC Player of the Year Awards ceremony, Al Khatib shared with FIFA.com his sense of optimism that he could be crowned Asia’s best.

“I have had a pleasant year during which I scored regularly with both club and country,” said the 26-year-old striker. “So I am happy to be up for the best player awards. I hope I can win the title and become part of Asian history.”

At the ceremony the next day, Japan midfielder Yasuhito Endo emerged the victor from a final group of nominees which also featured his Samurai Blue countryman Kengo Nakamura, Iran centre-half Hadi Aghily and Bahrain’s defensive stalwart Sayed Mohamed Adnan. “Reaching the last-five nominees was recognition of my performance over the past year and I hope to improve on this and continue my good form in the year to come,” he said.

Syrian Ronaldo
A talented goal-scorer well-known in the Middle East, Khatib has long modelled his game on Brazilian talent Ronaldo. “I often watched him on television before practising. I like his moves, his surging runs and his finishing touches.” Al Khatib relies primarily on his pace, agility and skill to score. Although the diminutive striker does not compare physically to his Brazilian idol, his scoring tally has proved to be similarly phenomenal.

He started playing with Al Karama as a teenager and after spending seven years cutting his teeth with the Syrian giants, he moved to Kuwait in 2002 where he has since made his name as one of Asia’s emerging scoring talents. “I have scored 134 goals in six seasons in the Kuwaiti league, during which I have topped the scoring charts three times. Last season I netted 25 goals with Al Arabi before moving to Al Qadisia this year,” said Al Khatib, whose name means “the lion” in Arabic, which is perhaps fitting given his predatory mindset.

Averaging 22 goals per season was already an enviable feat, but his prolific form has also translated to the international stage. Al Khatib on target seven times this year for the national team, including two crucial goals that helped Syria qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 1996.

Understandably, the qualifying success for the continental competition finals provided him with positive memories. “I converted a spot kick in our opening 3-2 win against China and this was the most memorable moment of the year,” he said. “We played very well in our group, which also featured Lebanon and Vietnam, and became the first team to advance from the qualifying competition.”

History-making goal
Ambition is sometimes accompanied by disappointment and Al Khatib’s experience is no exception. For him, there was heartache when his side came close to progressing to Asia’s final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, only to be edged out on goal difference by the United Arab Emirates. “We had a very good start by drawing against Iran and defeating Kuwait, but lack of consistency cost us dearly. Although we beat UAE 3-1 in the closing game, we were punished by our previous mistakes,” he said.

Despite missing out on football’s global showpiece, Al Khatib has set an ambitious goal with a history-making showing in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Although Syria have never progressed beyond the group stage at the continental finals, Khatib has his sights set on finishing among the last four. “I hope we can reach the semi-finals at Qatar 2011. Our excellent qualifying results gave us the morale-booster to get back into our game and we will continue to make progress.”

The soft-spoken forward also revealed a long-term goal that he has cherished since childhood. “I am looking forward to playing with a European club, where I will not only become the trail-blazer for Syrian players, but can also raise my game to a new level.”