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Kuala Lumpur: To represent your country at a FIFA World Cup marks the highlight of many a player’s career. Sami Al Jaber, who is the next to feature in our ‘Asian Icons’ series, managed an incredible four appearances for Saudi Arabia at football’s biggest showpiece for a nation that had never even qualified for the tournament before his time.

Age: 44
Clubs: Al Hilal, Wolverhampton Wanderers
Honours: AFC Asian Cup (1996); Asian Club Championship (2000); Asian Cup Winners’ Cup (2002, 1997); Asian Super Cup (1997); Saudi Professional League (2005, 2002, 1998, 1996, 1990)

A golden generation

Saudi Arabia had enjoyed continental success during the 1980s, when they twice won the AFC Asian Cup, yet had failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup prior to Al Jaber’s debut in 1991.

But, with a group of players that included this week’s Asian Icon, forward Majed Abdullah, goalkeeper Mohamed Al Deayea and midfielder Saeed Al Owairan (scorer of that goal against Belgium), they were about to embark on a journey that would see them stand head and shoulders above those that had come before them.

The win where it all began

Al Jaber was just 20 years old when he opened the scoring for Saudi Arabia against the Islamic Republic of Iran in the final round of qualifying fixtures for the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States.

The Saudis went on to claim a 4-3 victory and advance to their maiden World Cup and the first of four successive tournaments. Al Jaber, known in his homeland as ‘The Legend’, would appear at all four competitions as the forward established himself as one of his country’s greatest players.

World Cup joy

The Al Hilal man won his first Saudi league championship in 1990, but it was to be the mid-nineties – for both club and country – that Al Jaber enjoyed continuous success.

Al Jaber missed his nation’s maiden World Cup match as a late goal by the Netherlands ensured a 2-1 victory, but he then opened the scoring from the spot in the 2-1 win over Morocco to help Saudi Arabia gain their first victory at the tournament.

A 1-0 win over Belgium followed before Al Jaber was part of the side that were eliminated 3-1 by Sweden in the last 16 of a tournament that had proved a remarkable success.

Continental glory for Green Falcons

Just over two years later, the Saudis would head into the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates as one of the favourities and, after scoring in the group stage win over Thailand, Al Jaber again found the back of the net in the 4-3 quarter-final victory over China.

The forward then started the back-to-back scoreless draws against IR Iran and the UAE in the semi-final and final as Saudi Arabia prevailed each time on penalties to lift a third continental title.

Al Hilal conquer Asia

Two league titles in three years followed domestically, while Al Hilal also claimed the 1996-97 Asian Cup Winners’ Cup as Al Jaber netted the first in a 3-1 victory over Nagoya Grampus Eight in the final in Riyadh.

More continental glory would follow as the Saudi side won the Asian Club Championship for a second time in 2000 with a 3-2 extra-time win over Japan's Jubilo Iwata, before reclaiming the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup in 2001-02 after seeing off Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors in the final.

Internationally, though, the Saudis were unable to replicate their form from 1994 as successive defeats to Denmark and France saw the Green Falcons eliminated from the 1998 FIFA World Cup, before Al Jaber netted, again from the spot, in a 2-2 draw with South Africa.

Saudi Arabia again reached the World Cup in 2002 but exited once more at the group stage, this time having failed to register a goal.

Wolverhampton woes

Right in the midst of continental success with his club side and World Cup heartbreak internationally, Al Jaber would have a short and ultimately unsuccessful loan spell in England with Wolverhampton Wanderers in the latter months of 2000.

In truth, luck was not on his side as injuries plagued the forward’s time in the Midlands and, when he did manage to find fitness, Al Jaber had to return to lead his country in the 2000 AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon.

The Saudis were unable to defend their title, finishing as runners-up to Japan, before Al Jaber headed back to England but failed to produce his best form and would find himself recalled to parent club Al Hilal.

Despite the disappointment of being unable to show what he was capable of, the forward later told that he “learned a lot from it and became more mature after living the daily routine of a true professional player”.

The latter years

Sami Al Jaber coached Al Hilal during the 2014 AFC Champions League

Having picked up his fourth Saudi Arabian league title in 2002, Al Jaber would win his fifth and final one in 2005. Then, at the age of 33, the veteran took part in his last FIFA World Cup as his country again advanced to the tournament.

It was in Munich that Al Jaber scored his final goal for Saudi Arabia in a 2-2 draw with Tunisia but losses to Ukraine and Spain ended the Saudis’ tournament to bring down the curtain on a golden generation.

Saudi Arabia have failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup since Al Jaber’s departure, although they remain in a strong position to make the 2018 edition in Russia.

Al Jaber, meanwhile, has gone on to helm Al Hilal and UAE side Al Wahda and is currently in charge of Riyadh-based team Al Shabab.

Photos: Lagardère Sports