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Home MIDDLE EAST Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

Al-Wehdat set for historic AFC Champions League debut

For most of Al-Wehdat’s existence, they have had to play second fiddle to Al-Faisaly, who have tallied twice as many domestic titles as their fierce Amman rival.

But over the past eight years, the Green Giants have started to turn the tide in their direction, winning five of the last seven league titles.

And it is Al-Wehdat who will make history this week when they become the first Jordanian club to participate in the group stage of the prestigious Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League.

With the expansion of the tournament to 40 teams, up from 32, an extra four teams have been added in both the east and west zones as teams from Jordan, India and Tajikistan will appear for the first time.

Al-Wehdat will face a baptism by fire in their AFC Champions League debut as the Green Giants have been drawn alongside Qatari juggernaut Al-Sadd and last year’s semi-finalist, Al-Nassr, who they will face on Wednesday.

“This is a massive tournament,” Lebanese international Hassan ‘Soony’ Ali Saad, who recently signed with Al-Wehdat, told Arab News from the club’s centralized hub in Riyadh. 

“All eyes are on this tournament in Asia and around the world and it is an opportunity to play good football and show what the champions of Jordan are about.”

Al-Wehdat have trained in Riyadh over the past few days and they know what they are up against.

“We are drawn into a tough group,” Saad said. “We have Al-Sadd and Al-Nassr, but we are the champions of Jordan so we should be able to compete. We should be able to play our style of football to get some results.

“Our expectations are to play the best we can, we want to win as many games as possible. And hopefully, we can get out of this tough group.”

Saad was born and raised in Michigan and rose to the ranks of Major League Soccer, the top-flight league in the US. He has also had professional stints in Thailand, Lebanon and South Korea but this will be his first taste of the AFC Champions League.

The prospect of playing in Asia’s showpiece tournament figured prominently in his decision to join the reigning Jordanian champions.

“When I joined Al-Wehdat, I knew they were in the Champions League and this definitely helped my decision,” the 28-year-old said.

“A big part of my decision was also coach Abdullah Abu Zema, who I had worked with before. I knew him from my time in Lebanon and I liked his approach to dealing with players.”

Al-Wehdat sealed the Jordanian Super Cup with a 2-0 win over Al-Jazeera last week, which was Saad’s first official match with the club. Then they traveled to Riyadh and the reception the club received upon arrival gave the players an extra boost, especially Saad.

“Arriving in the airport and seeing the Al-Wehdat fans was unreal,” he said.

“They followed us to the hotel. To realize we had that kind of support everywhere we go just shows this club is massive in the region and it is a great feeling.”

Saad got an early dose of the dedicated Al-Wehdat fanbase after he arrived in Amman to sign his contract.

“The amount of support I have received on social media has been incredible and it makes you really want to play and give your all for this club,” he added.

“I am still new so hopefully I can show them what I am about. When my restrictions ease up, we can experience the fans and culture that I think this club is very well known for.”

Whatever the next fortnight in Riyadh brings, Saad is just happy to be back playing football again after a spell in South Korea with the second-division Ansan Greeners that he would rather forget.

“I was not enjoying my football in Korea,” Saad said. “I had come off a season in Korea where we were playing a lot of defensive football. The coach really liked to play counter-attack and he liked his Korean players, so I was hungry to play.”

Saad is optimistic his reunion with Abu Zema will be a huge score for Al-Wehdat.

“I knew that Abu Zema has this personality to play attacking football, and that is what I missed most.”

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