For Saudi Arabia's Naif Hazazi, big things were expected straight away. The livewire forward started in fine form, scoring his first international goal against Thailand before netting a brace against Bahrain in the build-up to the crucial Asian Zone qualifying encounter with Korea Republic on 19 November 2008.
A fairytale script seemingly lay in wait. However, the expected dream start to Hazazi's international career quickly became a nightmare as the 20 year old made the worst possible FIFA World Cup™ qualifying debut. Just before the hour-mark, with disbelief and disappointment etched on his face, the young forward trudged off the pitch after receiving a second caution, capping a miserable evening for the Saudis as they went down 2-0 in front of a 60,000-strong crowd in Riyadh.
Less than three months later, they travelled to Pyongyang without their suspended striker. In his absence, captain Yasser Al Qahtani returned from injury for the crucial match against Korea DPR, but even the former Asian Player of the Year could not keep the Sons of the Desert from losing 1-0. Adding insult to injury, Al Qahtani himself picked up a suspension and, on the back of these disappointing opening results, coach Nasser Al Johar was relieved of his post.
Hazazi, meanwhile, was embroiled in a battle of his own simply to earn a regular place at his club Al Ittihad, with African internationals Emad Moteab (Egypt) and Hicham Aboucherouane (Morocco) leading the Tigers up front. With his starting opportunities limited, Hazazi was left to display his scoring prowess by grabbing a several crucial goals as a substitute.
A similar situation developed with the national team. With Al Qahtani and Malek Maaz established as the Saudis' first-choice forwards, Hazazi's route to the first XI looked to be blocked. All that changed, however, when new coach Jose Peseiro decided to rule out Al Qahtani for the qualifiers against Iran and the United Arab Emirates for disciplinary reasons.
Al Qahtani's loss was Hazazi's gain, with the youngster able to make his second qualifying appearance 129 days after seeing red in Riyadh. The venue, Tehran's foreboding Azadi stadium, could hardly have been any more intimidating, and yet it was here that Saudi Arabia's young star came of age. With his side trailing 1-0 and only 11 minutes remaining, Hazazi calmly converted the equaliser that ignited one of his country's most famous comebacks in a 2-1 victory.
"This was the best game of my life," beamed the youngster, who became a national hero overnight. "Today I was born again and I am really thrilled to help my team achieve such a decisive victory. Some people may not be aware, but I scored before in the same stadium against Iran's Olympic team and that is why I was quite familiar with this pitch and was not really affected by the big crowd."
Four days later in Riyadh, the Saudis were again trailing in the second half against UAE and, despite gaining a fortuitous equaliser through an own goal, they continued to struggle against a tough visiting side. Hazazi, however, had the last word, heading home the winner with only five minutes to go.
Big talent, big ambitions
Al Ittihad skipper Mohammed Noor, who captained the Saudis in these back-to-back wins, praised his team-mate after the match. "He is an exceptional player," said Noor. "He has speed, talent and, above all, he can score in any situation. I think if he continues to develop at this rate, he will soon be one of Asia's top players."
Hazazi's fine form has also translated from the international stage to the domestic scene. Last week he scored the opener, his ninth goal of this season, in a 2-1 win over second-placed Al Hilal that secured Ittihad the Saudi Premier League title. Yet despite clutching a championship medal, Hazazi is already setting his sights higher.
"My dream is to appear in the World Cup finals and to score in South Africa," says Hazazi. "Everyone around me is telling me how great I am, but I just pray to God to keep my feet on the ground."