Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

Mohammad Al Shalhoub interview: Al Hilal captain out to mend Asian Champions League heartbreak

One-club player talks to John McAuley during a trip to Dubai and ahead of the Saudi club's semi-final against Al Sadd

Even for one so decorated, Mohammad Al Shalhoub feels still a sense of unfinished business.

A one-club man, the Al Hilal midfielder has collected 30-plus trophies since making his professional debut in 1998. There’s the seven Saudi Arabian championship titles, the 11 Crown Prince Cups, the collection of Kings Cups, Super Cups and the other regional and continental crowns.

In 2000, the Asian Club Championship, the continent’s principal club trophy, before its 2002 rebrand as the Asian Champions League. It was Hilal’s second success in that particular tournament; it remains their last.

Tuesday’s semi-final first leg against Al Sadd, therefore, is another step in the club’s extended attempt to reign supreme once again. Now 38, and restricted ever more to cameo appearances for the only club he has only ever known, Al Shalhoub realises time is pressing.

“Sure, I’ve dreamed a lot about this cup and I hope we can get it,” the former Saudi international tells The National during a recent trip to Dubai with Emaar, Hilal’s sponsors. “I feel we're so close to that. That would be one of the biggest rewards, or gifts, that I'd like to present to Al Hilal club, and to the fans as well.

“I hope I will be one of the very few players that won this Asian championship in its two editions: the old edition and the new, with the new format. That would be nice for me personally in my football career.”

He has been close previously, agonisingly so. In 2014, when Hilal lost to a solitary goal across two legs to Western Sydney Wanderers in an ill-tempered final. In 2017, when Urawa Red Diamonds prevailed 2-1 on aggregate, condemning Hilal to another runner-up finish.

The pain drives not only Al Shalhoub now, but his teammates also.

“I'd say particularly, in that time when we were runners-up, we played the final, we gave all we had and gave our best," he says. "But I consider it bad luck not to get the title.

“I believe we will amend that, though. We're motivated to rectify our errors, to trying to avoid making the same mistakes we did before in order to get the cup.”

At Hilal, the pressure to deliver ranks as high as perhaps at any other club in Asia. The Champions League represents the trophy, the one that for too long has escaped them, the one that reinforces the Riyadh side’s claim to be not only the premier club in the Middle East, but on the continent, too.

Al Shalhoub has seen sides wilt in the past; he’s been part of them.

“Any footballer has to deal with pressure, especially when playing in a big club like Al Hilal,” he says. “But any player has to know how to live with such a pressure, bear it and transform it into something positive.

“Because the thing that we can now embrace, and that was the biggest pressure ever, is that Al Hilal didn’t win this tournament since a long time ago. As a major club Hilal are not used to staying a long time without achieving tournaments. So I think and I hope we will get this title this year to present it to our club.”

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Mohammed Al Shalhoub on Omar Abdulrahman

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Al Shalhoub points to the intervening years between 2000 and now, highlighting they have hardly been barren, both inside and outside the Kingdom. He cites the Asian Super Cup, at the turn of the century, the Arab Cup Winners’ Cup the following year, the Asian Cup Winners Cup in 2002.

Hilal have had sustained success. Just not in the tournament they crave most.

“People have, as they say, a goldfish memory,” Al Shalhoub says. “Like any big club, Hilal chose to win some titles in other tournaments. And now I think we will be back to Asia, God willing, from this year.”

Sadd, though, constitute an obvious threat. The Doha side, managed by former Barcelona and Spain midfielder Xavi, have dominated domestically of late and dispatched in the quarter-final Saudi champions Al Nassr. The club were Asian champions in 2011.

For that, Al Shalhoub understands the tie will be anything but easy.

“Sure, it will be a big game against a very strong team that have a lot of top players,” he says. “It will be a very interesting semi-final, two clubs from West Asia, a tough semi-final.

“And Al Sadd have a very good coach. All of us know him, love him and were watching him when he was playing. And even hoping and dreaming of playing with him or against him.

"Now Xavi’s the coach the team is doing very well, presenting high levels and playing nice football. We have to be strong against them.”

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Mohammad Al Shalhoub on UAE manager Bert van Marwijk

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Although not contributing as much on the pitch, Al Shalhoub's experience at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on Tuesday and back in Riyadh in three weeks' time could be invaluable. He has been here; he knows what it takes. He is a man of more than 100 caps for his country.

That he remains important at one of the region's lead sides, not far from his 39th birthday, is credit to his dedication to his craft.

“First of all, now you have revealed my secret, because I always say to everyone that I’m 25 years old,” Al Shalhoub jokes. “In December I will be 39. But I still have the same passion, the same desire to play football.

“And whenever I feel that both passion and desire are decreasing, that will be exactly the moment I will stop playing football.

“But the secret, actually, even along with the skill and the talent and the dedication for a footballer, is you have to be also doing the extra things outside of the pitch. That’s exactly what allows you to stay long time and to have a longer career in football.”

That said, despite the 20-plus years as a pro at Hilal and the 30-plus trophies, Al Shalhoub feels yet there is something missing.

“I must say that thanks to God I already achieved all that I was dreaming to achieve, everything in Al Hilal club,” he says. “The good thing is that I got this Asian championship when I was at the beginning of my career.

“But as a player it’s very good to get it twice, the first time when you're at the beginning of your career and the second when you're ending it. That’s a very good ambition. Personally, I’m very ambitious to fulfil that dream and achieve this cup.

“It would be very nice for me in my football career. And, God willing, we will be blessed and win the tournament this season.”

Updated: September 30, 2019 03:04 PM

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