Sunday 13 November 2016, 12:58

Al Abid, Saudi Arabia's penalty specialist

To be a footballer means facing challenging situations, and there is no doubt that standing at the penalty spot preparing to take a kick can be one of the most high-pressure experiences a player can face. Said spot-kick may come around in the most trying of times and scoring it – or not – can determine the fate of an entire team, which is why it takes a player with special qualities to pull it off time and again.

Saudi Arabia star Nawaf Al Abid has proven he has those qualities, showing his mental strength and nerves of steel during Asian Zone qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. And Al Abid did not just prove himself once or twice, but three times – in situations of the utmost difficulty.

The Green Falcons’ first match in Group B of Third Round Asian qualifying was against a stubborn Thailand side in Riyadh. The passionate Saudi crowd, hungry for a win, watched and held their breath while the score remained locked at 0-0. Then, with just six minutes left on the clock, the home team were awarded a penalty kick. With several players looking around, hoping for someone else to seize the challenge, No18 Al Abid took the responsibility, staring down the keeper before stepping up and firing confidently home to hand his country all three points.

“I’ve been used to these situations since I was very young,” said Al Abid, speaking exclusively to “It was a difficult match for us but one we had to win. In the moments after the penalty was announced, I looked one of my team-mates in the eye and felt there was something wrong. I improvised and asked that I take the penalty instead of him. Even though I’m not the first on the list of penalty-takers, I was confident I’d be able to score.

“It was a wonderful feeling,” he went on. “When you score in the crucial, last moments of a match in a World Cup qualifier, it means that the fans will be twice as happy. We didn’t let them down and they went home really exultant about our win.”

Bravery and composure Come their second match in Round Three, Al Abid and his team-mates travelled to Malaysia to meet Iraq, only to find themselves facing a similar, and arguably more difficult, situation. Saudi Arabia were trailing to a first-half Iraqi goal and the spectre of defeat loomed large until they were awarded an 81st-minute penalty.

“Again the other players looked towards me and that was the signal to save the day once again,” said Al Abid, revealing what went on in those high-pressure final minutes. “Despite the huge responsibility, my confidence in myself was soaring and I was certain I’d score.” Score he did, Al Abid sending the ball into the top right-hand corner to drag Saudi Arabia level.

More drama was to come only a few minutes later, when the talented attacking midfielder was himself brought down in the box. Seeing no need to do things any differently, Al Abid picked up the ball and went to the penalty spot, again showing remarkable calm to fire the ball to the keeper’s left to clinch a 2-1 victory.

“After I scored, the only thing I could think about was that we were going to win,” the player recalled. “The sound of the fans who’d travelled to support us in Malaysia was resounding throughout. When I ran towards the fans, I was hugged by my team-mates, everyone celebrated with me and I felt so good!

“I’d done my bit and everyone was proud of me. I owe a debt to the two most important people in my life, my mother and father, because they had a big influence in shaping my personality in a way that allows me to carry out difficult tasks,” continued the man of the moment. “After the match, the team was so happy. Everyone was talking about the little details of what happened but what touched my heart and made me proud was that they started calling me ‘The Brave One’ after stepping up in these difficult situations. It’s beautiful to have your team-mates believe in you and I thank them for supporting me.”

Nor did Al Abid stop there. In the third match of the round he was involved in both his side’s goals in the 2-2 draw against Australia and, a few days later, came another exciting game – against United Arab Emirates. The Saudis were a goal up, though UAE were a threat on the counter-attack until another decisive intervention from Al Abid. On a fast break which caught the Emiratis unawares, the ball reached Al Abid who calmly fired the ball into the top corner – thus netting his team’s second in an important 3-0 win and sending the Saudi fans into wild raptures of applause.

Dreaming of Russia 2018 Next up for Al Abid and his Saudi colleagues is a tough match against Japan in Saitama on Tuesday. “We know that going up against Japan on their turf will be difficult, but this makes us even more determined to play well,” said the player, in the build-up to the crunch clash. “I know they are going to be watching out for me and will put me under pressure but, by following the coach’s instructions and with the help of my team-mates, I’ll give a good performance on the pitch. I’m not looking for personal glory; our goal is to get a result which will keep us on top of the group and on the path to qualifying.

“When the groups were drawn and we were placed in this section some people felt frustrated,” he continued. “The teams drawn with us are strong and they’ve qualified many times before, but we Saudis are Asian giants too. This is the time for us to show our strength. Before the first match the players made the commitment to do everything in their power to qualify for the World Cup. We’re on the path towards qualification, but to make it the rest of the way needs us to keep putting in more effort. We’ll always live up to the commitment we made.”

The Green Falcons qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1994, when Al Abid was only four, and the budding player watched his country from afar at their subsequent three appearances at the global showpiece. “I can remember many of the matches our team played at previous World Cups,” he said, of his dream to pull on the Saudi shirt and defend his country at Russia 2018.

“I learned a lot from that and used to wish I was out there on the pitch with them. Now we have the opportunity to make our dreams come true and take part in this great tournament. We have to continue to work hard and make our dreams a reality.”