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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Romain Saiss believes joining Al-Shabab was best choice for his ‘football and life’
The recent Africa Cup of Nations in the Ivory Coast was one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, with early exits for several of the continent’s traditional heavyweights. Among those was FIFA World Cup semifinalist Morocco, surprisingly eliminated at the last-16 stage by South Africa.
It means that, a little earlier than expected, Morocco captain Romain Saiss returned to Saudi Arabia and his club Al-Shabab, for whom he signed on a permanent basis ahead of AFCON after a successful loan spell in the first half of the season.
A move to Ligue 1 giants Marseille fell through last summer, hastening his arrival in Saudi Arabia, but Saiss says he has been happy with his unexpected switch to the Kingdom.
“I was close to signing for Marseille but it did not happen for me and Al-Shabab was the best choice in terms of football and life,” Saiss told Arab News. “For me it was really interesting because the league is growing a lot, they are investing a lot by bringing players and coaches and staff to improve the standard — so it seemed like a good opportunity.
“I wanted a club with a good project that would be right for me and my family. And as a Muslim it is also great to play football and live in Saudi Arabia.”
Having previously played in the English Premier League, for a six-year stint at Wolves, Saiss has been enjoying the opportunity to test himself against some of the world’s best players in the Kingdom. Now the Morocco skipper is hoping that Shabab — currently 11th in the Saudi Pro League table — have an upturn in fortunes in the second half of the season.
“I’ve been really impressed by the league so far; of course, everything’s not perfect, but it’s a good challenge and it’s nice to play against top players most weekends,” Saiss said.
“It has only really been one year now of this (investment in the Saudi Pro League) and I think each year it will get even better. I’m happy to be part of this project to help to improve football in Saudi Arabia.
“Most of the new players that have come to Saudi Arabia from Europe are offensive players. For me that’s a great thing because it has helped me stay competitive playing against players like Benzema, Ronaldo and Mitrovic.
“It is always tough but also good as a defender and really, I’m enjoying my life here at the moment. I’m just hoping we can get better results with Al-Shabab but they will come with time I’m sure.”
The arrival of Croatian international Ivan Rakitic in the January transfer window will help fuel those ambitions.
Although Saudi Arabia, like Morocco, suffered an early continental exit at the recent Asian Cup, Saiss expects to see an improvement in young Saudi talent as they are increasingly exposed to the high professional standards of players with European experience.
Saiss plays with ex-Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco at Al-Shabab and says the Belgian is an excellent mentor to the club’s younger players.
“Of course, it’s not the English Premier League (in Saudi Arabia) but there is a lot of talent here in the league and the arrival of a lot of players from Europe is helping the local players to challenge themselves and to improve.
“I think they have the best example here now in terms of work ethic and mentality with Cristiano Ronaldo.
“At Shabab we have Yannick, who firstly is a very good person but also a top player. He showed this in Madrid with Atletico — he won so many trophies and reached a lot of finals.
“He is a great example to our teammates of what they have to do in terms of mentality of working hard on and off the pitch. He’s always there to give advice to players if they want to ask him questions — whether it is something technical, or just about his experiences at Madrid.
“He is a really talented player but also a hard worker — the kind of player I really like to have on my side because he is not just focused on going forward — he is defending and working hard for the team.”
One of the highlights of Saiss’ football career came against Carrasco’s Belgium at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, when the Morocco captain scored the opening goal in a 2-0 win that set his team on the path to the semifinals and led to the Red Devils’ premature exit at the group stage.
“It is not a good memory for him of course but you know he also reached the semifinal in 2018,” Saiss said. “In 2022 it was the time of Morocco instead and it was more difficult for him and for Belgium. I don’t talk about it too much as I don’t want to make him sad.”
Saiss also shares the pitches of Saudi Arabia with several of his compatriots; there are 11 Moroccan players in the division, including national team goalkeepers Yassine “Bono” Bounou and Munir Mohamedi, who play for Al-Hilal and Al-Wehda respectively.
With Bono also based in Riyadh, Saiss has spent a lot of time with the Al-Hilal goalkeeper in recent months — with the pair living just 10 minutes away from each other in the capital. The two have forged a close bond playing together for Morocco and Saiss feels that there are few goalkeepers globally as good as his Atlas Lions teammate.
“I’ve played with him for more than 10 years in the national team and he is an excellent goalkeeper,” said Saiss. “As a defender, you always hope to have this kind of player behind you — it makes you feel more secure and you are less worried about making a mistake.
“It’s important for me to have a good, good relationship with my goalkeeper; you have to trust them because if you don’t trust your goalkeeper, it can be difficult as a defender.
“We are lucky that Morocco has very good goalkeepers and of course having Bono in our team is always major strength. I think Bono showed for the last few years he is one of the best in the world.
“You can see with Al-Hilal, they only conceded nine goals in the league. Of course, it’s not all about Bono, but I think he has had a big part to play in that. He’s a top player and top guy also — very friendly with everyone, always smiling. You can count on him.”
While Bono has been one of Saiss’ best teammates, his list of toughest opponents is a long one that includes Kylian Mbappe and Romelu Lukaku. But it is another Belgian who Saiss highlights as the trickiest he has faced.
“I can talk about many, many players, but Eden Hazard was always very, very difficult,” Saiss recalled. “We want to play professional football to be able to meet these kinds of players, to play against them.
“When I look back now, I’m very happy and proud about what I’ve done in the game and the players I have played against. I have suffered against these guys too of course — that’s inevitable when you are facing such quality players. But yes, Hazard in his prime is something I will always remember.”
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