Talal Haji: youngest scorer in RSL history has season to remember

Al Ittihad’s teen prodigy, Talal Haji, has made a habit of breaking records.

In September, aged just 16 years and five days, he became the youngest-ever player to feature in the Roshn Saudi League, coming off the bench in the dying minutes of the 2-1 win against Al Fateh. With Haji on the pitch, the 2022-23 champions made sure of the victory, lifting them to five wins from six at the beginning their title defence.

Earlier this year, when aged 16 years and 131 days, Haji became the youngest player in history to play for Saudi Arabia at the AFC Asian Cup. Again he introduced as a substitute, this time in the 0-0 draw with Thailand. The stalemate ensured the Green Falcons secured their place in the knockout rounds in Qatar.

Then, only six weeks later, Haji entered the record books once more. With an acrobatic finish in the RSL clash against Al Okhdood in Matchweek 23, he took his place the youngest goalscorer in competition history. At age 16 years and 175 days, the goal also secured a 2-1 win for Al Ittihad.

Now, and rather remarkably, still three months shy of his 17th birthday, it’s been a breakout season for the Jeddah-born sensation, who finished the campaign with two goals and three assists.

His end to 2023-24, in particular, showed the abundance of potential that exists within the 16-year-old. In the penultimate game, at home to Damac, Haji was handed only his second start by manager Marcelo Gallardo - and if anyone wasn’t aware of the prodigious youngster beforehand, they sure would’ve been by full-time.

Al Haji delivered a man-of-the-match performance, scoring his second goal of the campaign and providing two superb assists in a display that belied his tender age. Already boasting a physically muscular frame, he showed vision, poise and spatial awareness beyond his years as Al Ittihad ran riot to emerge 4-1 victors.

Al Haji’s second assist was especially a sight to behold; a wicked outside-of-the-foot, left-footed pass that took out two defenders and was weighted perfectly for Marwan Al Sahafi, himself only 20, to also net his second goal of the season.

Trusted again to start the campaign's final game, against second-placed Al Nassr, Haji continued to impress; he added another assist to round out his debut season in style. In all, he featured in nine RSL matches for Al Ittihad - three of which were starts - supplying two goals and three assists across 293 minutes of football.

For someone who was still only 15 when Al Ittihad began their title defence, they are impressive numbers and offer a glimpse to the talent and potential of Haji.

However, his is a skillset that’s been blossoming for some time. Haji was discovered by Al Ittihad scouts when aged 14 and moved straight into their Under-17 side.

It wasn’t long before he caught the eye of former Al Ittihad manager Nuno Espirito Santo, who called up the precocious teen to train with the first team aged 15. Nuno was not alone in taking a liking to Haji, either; he was soon representing the national team at U17 level.

Still aged 15, Haji won the Golden Boot at the 2022 U17 Arab Cup, with an impressive seven goals that included a hat-trick against Lebanon in the final group-stage encounter, and a second treble, against Iraq in the quarter-finals.

Not content with doing it on the regional stage, he also scored twice at the AFC U17 Asian Cup in Thailand in June last year, with both goals coming against Tajikistan. They were performances that drew high praise - perhaps even the highest - from Bandar Al Jaithan, former coach of the U-23 national team, who likened Haji to one of Saudi Arabia’s all-time greatest players.

Talal Haji plays for Saudi Arabia

“His movement off the ball, his technical ability and his finishing with either foot," Al Jaithan said. "All of these things remind me of the early days of Majed Abdullah."

It’s just about the finest endorsement a promising striker in Saudi Arabia could receive. Yet it speaks to the excitement around Haji, who won’t turn 17 until the early stages of the 2024-25 RSL season, in September.

While he will undoubtedly face stiff competition for a place in the Al Ittihad team – they possess the likes of Karim Benzema and Abderrazak Hamdallah up front - what Haji has shown this season is reason enough to suggest an exciting future lies ahead in yellow and black.

If you haven't already, following that breakout season, then remember the name.