Saudi Arabia midfielder Taiseer Al Jassam does not have especially fond memories of his country’s last appearance at the FIFA World Cup™, which came at Germany 2006. There were two reasons for that. Firstly, the Saudis collected just the one point in their three group matches. And secondly, he failed to make the final squad, despite playing a part in the qualifiers.
Speaking to FIFA.com, he discussed the reasons for his absence from the finals in Germany: “It was all down to the new coach, who decided to leave out a number of players who’d taken part in the qualifiers. I was really disappointed at the time.”
The new coach in question was the Brazilian Marcos Paqueta, who took over from the Argentinian Gabriel Calderon. “I was a virtual starter in the qualifiers, but the coach made his decision,” said Al Jassam. “I want, with all my heart, to play in the next World Cup so I can put the whole thing behind me.”
Despite their obvious potential and huge support, Saudi Arabia failed in their subsequent bids to reach South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, setbacks that Al Jassam is well placed to offer an opinion on: “Asian football has developed a lot.
"The players in the east – particularly from Japan and Korea Republic – play in Europe, as do the Australians, and they’ve become better than us. That’s made our task a lot more difficult. These teams have a professional outlook, and then there’s their excellent fitness levels, which give them the edge.”
Faith in the future
The Saudis have made an impressive start to their Russia 2018 qualification campaign, recording six wins and two draws in Group A of the second round to advance to the third and final phase, where they will take on Japan, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.
Reflecting on his team’s progress so far, Al Jassam said: “Every match has been tough. We got six wins, but the match against the Emirates was a very tricky one. We’ve done really well up to now and I hope we can continue to make progress in the final round.”
The midfielder, who was at the team’s recent training camp in Austria, where they have been preparing for the upcoming meetings with Thailand and Iraq, added: “We’ve been drawn in a tight group. Every team is competitive, including Australia, who, to my mind, are sort of England’s B team.
“We’ve got a great coach in Bert van Marwijk, and we can hold our own against these sides. We’ve come on a lot technically and we’re optimistic about our chances of qualifying.”
Discussing those chances at greater length, Al Jassam added: “We’ve missed out on the last two World Cups, and the fans and the media are expecting a lot of us. As players, we have an historic opportunity to re-establish ourselves as one of the top sides in Asian football. We need to make the best possible start to the next round so we can keep moving forward and achieve our goal."
This is Al Jassam’s fourth World Cup qualification campaign, and he sees it as his duty to pass on all his experience to the younger members of the Saudi squad.
“There are a lot of young players in the team, but they do have a certain amount of experience because they’ve played a lot of games at the highest level domestically and they’ve earned a few international caps too,” he explained. “There are five or six experienced players in the team right now and we’re going to try and pass on what we know so we can qualify, which is what our supporters have been waiting for.”