Tuesday 05 October 2021, 07:00

Saudis' Al Shehri sets sights on the big stage

  • Saleh Al Shehri has excelled for Saudi Arabia since making his debut last year

  • The scorer of five goals in the qualifiers for Qatar 2022

  • Hoping to keep his run going and help the Green Falcons make the world finals

Saleh Al Shehri could not have asked for a better belated birthday present than his first Saudi Arabia cap. Impressed by the Jeddah-born forward’s club form with Al Hilal, the Saudis’ French coach, Herve Renard, decided to hand him his international debut a week after he turned 27.

It came in a friendly against Jamaica on 14 November 2020. Proving that Renard was right to put his faith in him, Al Shehri marked a fine performance with a goal and has since proved to be an effective attacking spearhead in the Asian qualifying competition for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.

In the second round of the qualifiers, Al Shehri scored two goals against Palestine and another against Singapore, helping to fire his team to the top of Group D and into the third round of the competition. Drawn into Group B in the third round, Saudi Arabia kicked off with a 3-1 defeat of Vietnam last month and beat Oman 1-0 five days later, with Al Shehri contributing a goal in both games.

“Playing for your country is an honour for any player,” Al Shehri told FIFA.com, recalling his debut. “I was so happy. It was like a dream come true. Luckily, I had a great game too.”

Saudi Arabia forward Saleh Al Shehri is seen with Saudi Arabia head coach Herve Renard

The six goals he has scored in nine matches with the Green Falcons are proof if it were needed that Al Shehri fully deserves his national team place.

“Everybody tries to show what they can do when they make their international debut,” he said of that first outing against Jamaica. “I achieved that objective by scoring in the last minute of the first half. To get my first goal for the national team was something special for me, an amazing feeling.”

Reflecting on his run of goals in the Qatar 2022 qualifiers. he added: “I’ve set myself a target and now I’m trying to achieve it. Playing for my country is a dream, and now that I’ve made it a reality I’m going to do all I can to keep on improving and scoring goals.”

Stern tests

After seeing off Vietnam and Oman, Al Shehri and his team-mates will face their biggest challenge yet in Group B this Thursday, when Japan visit Jeddah. Five days later, the Saudis entertain China PR. Though mindful of the challenge posed by the Japanese, the No11 is hopeful that Saudi Arabia can fulfil their fans’ expectations: “We’ve got respect for Japan. They’re one of the strongest teams on the whole continent, but so are we. We’re preparing as best we can to go out and do well in front of our own fans. “It’s going to be a huge boost to have our fans behind us. I can feel it’s going to be a great game, for the players and the supporters.” When asked about the match against the Chinese, who lie bottom of the group, Al Shehri preferred to stay focused on Saudi Arabia’s immediate future: “We’re not thinking any further ahead than the Japan game. Our first objective is to keep on winning.”

The magic of the World Cup

If the Saudis manage to do that, they will give themselves an excellent chance of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the second time in a row, after Russia 2018, a tournament in which several of Al Shehri’s current team-mates played. Having heard from them just how amazing that experience was, the front man is keen to follow in their footsteps and appear on the big stage. “Quite a few of the players did really well at the last World Cup and they’ve helped me a lot with their advice and experience,” he said. “They’ve spoken a lot about the importance of such big games on their careers. I hope I can get to play some too.” Al Shehri went on to explain that if he does fulfil his dream of playing in the World Cup next year, he may well reveal the secret behind his unique goal celebration: “The way I celebrate my goals is a secret between my father and me. If we qualify for the World Cup, I might just explain the reason why I do it.” Time will tell if that revelation comes at Qatar 2022. All Saudi Arabia are hoping for is that Al Shehri continues to find the back of the net on their quest for another World Cup appearance.