- Yahya Al-Shehri has played in all of Saudi Arabia’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers
- The winger has scored five times during in the Russia 2018 campaign
- He dreams of propelling the Green Falcons back to the global stage
Despite a run of victories and a current position of joint first in Group B of the Asian qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, Saudi Arabia still have work to do in order to advance to the competition proper next year, and their players are aware that they must remain as determined as possible in order to achieve their goal.
The team’s major star, Yahya Al-Shehri, spoke exclusively with FIFA.com where he discussed the prevailing mood in the Saudi camp ahead of this week's crucial away match with third-placed Australia, the eighth encounter of this third round of qualifying.
“We’re ahead of them in the table,” he said. “We have to play them on their home turf, but we’ll go there to win and to hold on to top spot. We want to keep winning and qualify for the World Cup.”
If the Green Falcons were to return to the forefront of the global game and qualify for Russia 2018, it would be the first time in well over a decade that they have appeared on football’s greatest stage, after having competed at four World Cups in a row between 1994 and 2006.
Regular goal threat
Most observers of the Asian football scene agree that Al-Shehri is an essential cog in the Saudi Arabian machine. The 26-year-old has been an ever-present in squads during the campaign, and has been included in Bert van Marwijk’s starting XI in 14 of the 15 matches played so far.
Despite being aligned on the flank by the Dutch coach, he has still managed to chip in with five crucial goals, including the winner in a 1-0 win over Iraq in late March. “To remain at peak fitness and keep our skills ticking over, we have to work really hard and keep up the same level of effort all season long,” he said. “Morale’s pretty high at the moment due to our winning run. Now we need to focus on qualifying for the World Cup.”
Al-Shehri notched three goals during the second round: one against Palestine and two versus Timor-Leste. In the subsequent round, he scored against the United Arab Emirates and Iraq, getting the crowd off their seats in the latter match with a particularly memorable strike. Bursting right through the heart of the Iraqi midfield, he played a neat one-two with Nawaf Al-Abed and fired the ball into the top right-hand corner of the net.
“Our style of play means that we generate a lot of chances,” explained the Dammam native. “I noticed there was a lot of space ahead for me to run into and shoot. The Iraqi defence had been pretty compact during the first half, and trying our luck from outside the box was a way to combat that.
“We were ecstatic at the final whistle. It was very important for me to score the winning goal and help my team earn three points. I’m not going to rest on my laurels, though, and I’m going to try to score more goals that can spur my team-mates on to victory.”
Like his compatriots, Al-Shehri, who was born in 1990, grew up immersed in the exploits of the great Saudi teams of the day, and would like nothing more than to emulate his illustrious predecessors. “We’re a big team in Asian terms and missing out on the last two World Cups has made us doubly determined to qualify,” said the talented Al Nassr player.
“When we were young, we were so happy each time our country qualified – it’s such an honour to hear the national anthem at the world’s greatest football tournament. It’s that kind of thing that encourages us to bring back those glory days.”
He continued: “I often re-watch highlights of Saudi Arabia’s World Cup adventures. Our first appearance was at USA 1994, and it was probably the most memorable, because we beat both Morocco and Belgium, and gave the Netherlands a run for their money. When you look at the legendary players who made history for the Green Falcons, you then realise that you have to give 100 per cent yourself.”
Al-Shehri is a huge admirer of Lionel Messi, whom he considers to be the greatest player on the planet. “He puts on such a great show on the pitch. For me, he’s untouchable. I hope I get to play against him at the World Cup someday (laughs). We’re going to try our best to get to Russia, and we’ll be crossing our fingers for Argentina in the draw,” he concluded.