Sami Al Jaber remains one of the most recognizable faces in Asian football even though the former Saudi Arabia hit-man retired in the aftermath of his nation’s appearance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup finals in Germany.
A scorer of goals at virtually every level at which he played, one of the former Al Hilal striker’s finest achievements was filling a key role in the 1996 AFC Asian Cup victory of Saudi Arabia, the nation’s most recent win at the continental championship.
Al Jaber was just 23 at the time and was one of the newest and brightest stars of a team that would dominate the sport in the region throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium.
Having already played at the FIFA World Cup finals in the United States two years earlier – where they reached the second round – the same Saudi side would win the Gulf Cup in 1994, the Asian Cup in 1996 in the United Arab Emirates and go on to qualify for the World Cup finals again in 1998.
Their run of success continued into the 2000 AFC Asian Cup, where they again reached the final – only to lose to Japan – before also playing at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan.
Of all his successes – and there were many too at club level – Al Jaber holds the AFC Asian Cup win 15 years ago close to his heart.
“Of course, 1996 is the most special memory for me at the Asian Cup because we won it that year,” says the 38-year-old. “And we had a special team.
“But it was a tough challenge to win it because there were so many good teams playing at that Asian Cup. The Iranians were incredible with Ali Daei scoring so many goals and we were in a group with them, Iraq and Thailand, so we had it tough right from the beginning.
“I didn’t play in 1992, it was a little bit too early for me, so 1996 was special. We won our first game 6-0 against Thailand and that gave us a perfect start and then we beat Iraq, so we knew we were through before we lost our last game against Iran.
“The game against China in the quarterfinals is one of the ones I remember most because we were losing 2-0 and we came back to win 4-3.
“We showed so much fight and determination to come back against that Chinese team. We had so much belief in ourselves and our squad was very strong, we had great players like Youssef Al Thuniyan and five of the players who had won the Under 17 World Cup in 1989.
“Then we defeated Iran on penalties before beating the hosts on penalties as well in the final. It was a special tournament and we had a special team.”
The Saudis were installed among the favourites to successfully defend their title four years later when the finals were played in Lebanon, but the Milan Macala-coached side had an awful start.
Running into a youthful and vibrant Japan side coached by Frenchman Philippe Troussier, the Saudis were on the wrong end of a 4-1 defeat that cost Macala his job after just one game.
Nasser Al Johar took over as coach and led the team to the final, where they lost once again – 1-0 this time – to the Japanese.
“We also had a very strong team in 2000 but we had a terrible start,” says Al Jaber. “We lost 4-1 to Japan but we were determined to come back and show our true spirit.
“Milan Macala was fired but it wasn’t about the coach, it was about us. We worked so hard after that.
“We drew with Qatar and we beat Uzbekistan 5-0 and that put us back on track. When we got to the final we played Japan again and we were a little unlucky.
“Hamza Idris missed a penalty when it was 0-0 and so many people have asked me: ‘Sami, why didn’t you take the penalty?’ But I didn’t take it. We lost but that’s football.”
Al Jaber’s appearances in two AFC Asian Cup finals shine out from an astonishing career that also saw him win the Asian Club Championship, Asian Cup Winners Cup and Asian Super Cup twice each with Al Hilal.
He also became the first Saudi to play professionally in England when he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers for a short loan stint as well as racking up numerous domestic titles.
“I was very lucky in my career because I managed to play in four World Cups and won the Asian Cup as well as winning so many titles with Al Hilal at Asian level and in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I had a great career, I really did, and I enjoyed it very much.”