Gomis: I feel like a lion

  • Al Hilal are set to take on Pohang Steelers for AFC Champions League glory

  • Bafetimbi Gomis has become one of the Saudi giants’ best-ever players

  • He discusses the final and the FIFA Club World Cup

A lion ‘checking into’ a hotel in Junagadh is one of the most viral videos of 2021. Thankfully, nobody was hurt before it slipped back off into Girnar jungle. Another lion has been on the loose in Asia this year – and this apex predator has taken victims aplenty. Bafetimbi Gomis has been terrorising opponents in the AFC Champions League, the alpha in a coalition including Khalifah Al-Dawsari, Salem Al-Dawsari, Andre Carrillo, Matheus Pareira and Moussa Marega that is one kill away from its takeover. The 36-year-old, who has scored 112 goals in 143 games since joining the club in 2018, chats to FIFA about his love of lions, playing alongside legends for France, Tuesday’s final against Pohang Steelers, his heroics at the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup™ and his belief that Al Hilal could beat Chelsea at the forthcoming one.

FIFA: You were team-mates with Lilian Thuram, Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele, Franck Ribery, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Karim Benzema during your time with the France national team. Which player most impressed you? Bafetimbi Gomis: They all impressed me a lot, but the most? Lilian Thuram. Thuram, Vieira, Henry won the World Cup with the national team in 1998. I was very young at that time, dreaming of becoming a football player, and this had a big impact on me. To play alongside them was unbelievable. I remember just staring at them at the start [thinking], ‘Wow, here I am playing alongside these World Cup winners’. It was amazing for me to play with all the players you mentioned – I learnt something from them all – and Henry, Benzema, Anelka, Henry played in my position, so perhaps in playing terms I could learn a little more from them. But I would say Thuram because he was outstanding in the 1998 World Cup and that was such an important title for France. He was a great player and a great professional.

Could you imagine back then that you would still be scoring goals prolifically as a 36-year-old? The Al Hilal fans give me power. I’m 36 but I don’t feel 36. I still have so much ambition. I still train two to three times a day. I feel great physically. I feel like a lion. Can you tell us about your love of lions? I’ve loved lions since I was a teenager. My personality is like a lion’s. I feel like a lion. Not because I am stronger than everybody else, but because I will never give up. People call me a lion. I celebrate my goals like a lion. It’s something I really enjoy and the fans do too.

You mentioned the Al Ahli fans giving you power. You seem to have a very special relationship with them… I’ve been here over three years and it couldn’t have gone much better. We’ve won two Saudi championships, the Champions League, we’re in another final. When you’re winning, the fans are happy. But, yes, my relationship with them is extra special. I’ve played in France, in England, in Turkey but the Al Hilal fans are very passionate. Football means everything to them. The support we get is absolutely incredible. They now have another idol in Matheus Pereira. What do you think of him? I’m a striker – what do you think? (laughs) He’s a dream to play with. He always puts the balls through perfectly. In big games, he’s that player who can do something special and make the difference – some skill, a pass. He was wanted by some of the biggest clubs in Europe, so for Al Hilal to get him shows our intentions.

What do you think of Pohang Steelers and how confident are you Al Hilal will conquer Asia again? A Champions League final is always huge, but this game is extra special. We both have three titles, so whoever wins this will be Asia’s most successful club. Pohang are obviously a very good team, but I’m very confident we’ll win. We have very good players, a very strong team and are in very good form. And we will be playing in Riyadh. The winners will qualify for the global finals. On your FIFA Club World Cup debut, you came off the bench and scored a brilliant winner to send Al Hilal into the semi-finals. What do you remember about that? It was an amazing day. I was sad at the start of it because I’d been out injured, I’d tried everything to get fit for the game but I wasn’t ready to start. Then the coach turned to me and said, ‘How would you feel about going on?’ I jumped up and said I’d do my best to score a goal. Soon after going on the ball came to me and fortunately I managed to score. It was a nice goal and it’s a really good memory for me.

Al Hilal were leading Flamengo at half-time and only lost to Monterrey on penalties in the match for third place. How much confidence did that FIFA Club World Cup campaign give you as a team? It gave us a lot of confidence, but it left us wanting more. We showed we could compete against the best sides, but I think we could have won those games. Our target is to go to the Club World Cup again and to do even better. Al Hilal’s target, in every competition we enter, is the title. Chelsea are the favourites to win the Club World Cup. What do you think of the Blues? I have followed Chelsea for a long time. When Hazard left, I was sad and I didn’t know how they would replace him. But they have built a new team, have had a lot of good young players come through. And for me Mendy is the best goalkeeper in the world. He’s from Senegal like me. I think for goalkeepers – maybe more than other positions – it’s about the moment, and right now he is definitely the best goalkeeper in the world.

Do you think Al Hilal could beat them? I definitely think we could beat them. Look, if I’m being honest, if Al Hilal played in the Premier League, I don’t think we could match Chelsea over 38 games. But in a single game, of course we can beat them. Especially with the Al Hilal fans.