History-maker Haji determined to help Saudi Arabia win fourth title

It was a historic moment for Asian football on Thursday when Saudi Arabia’s Talal Haji etched his name in the record books, becoming the youngest player ever to play in an AFC Asian Cup™ match at the age of 16 years and 131 days. 

Haji took to the stage in Saudi Arabia’s Group F fixture against Thailand, which ended in a 0-0 draw at the Education City Stadium.

The talented teenager nearly made an instant impact, rising to meet Nasser Al Dawsari’s cross with a header only to be denied a goal by agile Thai goalkeeper Saranon Anuin.

“I can’t describe my feelings at being called to the national team and getting the chance to play in the AFC Asian Cup. I hope the next stage will be better for me and the team,” said Haji who plays for Saudi Pro League side Al Ittihad Club.

“Being with such a great group of experienced players at the national team has helped me learn and develop. We hope to win the AFC Asian Cup title.”

Haji wasn’t even born when Saudi Arabia won the last of their three AFC Asian Cup titles in 1996 but the youngster believes they can go all the way in Qatar 2023 and, at the same time, help his development. 

“There is potential to learn and develop, especially in terms of discipline. I hope to help the Saudi Arabian national team secure multiple titles.”

Haji’s appearance on Thursday meant he surpassed the milestone held by Syria’s Munaf Ramadan, who was selected in the squad for the 1988 edition.

The forward’s rapid rise doesn’t come as a surprise, having scored an impressive 10 goals in 11 games for Saudi Arabia’s U17 national team while he also holds the distinction of being the youngest player ever to feature in the Saudi Pro League, making his debut at the tender age of 16 years and 5 days.

Saudi Arabia head coach Roberto Mancini expects great things from the young talent. 

“Talal is a very young player and he has great abilities. I think being with us will give him great experience and I hope he gets the chance to play more matches with us here.”

He may just get the chance when Saudi Arabia play Korea Republic in the Round of 16 on Tuesday. 

By Nadeem Faisal Baiga