The next two years are big for Saudi Arabian football. The national team are preparing for their first World Cup since 2006, there is the Asian Cup in January 2019 and in 2020, the Saudi Premier League will aim to be one of the top seven leagues in the world.
That the first two will happen is not in dispute but the third is a target announced by Turki Al-Asheikh, the chairman of the powerful General Sports Authority, a government body that runs all sports in the country, in a television statement in late April.
“With the support of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi league will become one of the top leagues in the world by 2020 and aim to attract over three million fans by 2019,” said Al Sheikh. In the 2017-18 season, just over one million watched the action live in the stadiums. There is plenty of work to do.
There are some seriously big clubs in the kingdom. The bulk of the World Cup squad will be supplied by Riyadh giants Al Hilal and Al Nassr as well as Jeddah titans Al Ittihad and Al Ahli. Games between these rivals are big occasions but the average attendance in the league in this season was short of 6,000. It’s not enough for a country which loves football, has played at four World Cups and won three Asian Cups.
The clubs are state-owned. Turning these into private entities is part of wider government plans to diversify the economy. While there have been advantages in terms of access to money that once tempted Brazilian stars Rivelino and Denilson to the country, the lack of accountability has reached serious proportions.
The money has often been provided without much oversight. That is perhaps why 20 percent of FIFA cases that deal with salaries not being paid to players and coaches originate in Saudi Arabia.
This does not necessarily mean there is no money (a recently announced new broadcasting deal will bring in increased revenue in the next 10 years). Club presidents — often with no connection to, or background in, the sport — often come in for short periods. In their eagerness to make an impact and increase their off-field popularity and influence, they are often happy to leave the bills, which include such things as international school fees for the children of foreign coaches, for successors to deal with. It does not make for a stable set-up.
Such problems have started to hurt the country on the pitch. Instead of the usual four representatives in the AFC Champions League, only two kicked off the 2018 version as Al Nassr and Al-Ittihad were unable to obtain AFC Club licences.
Privatisation is seen as a necessary step but is taking longer than originally planned as more feasibility studies take place. The delay does not mean that nothing is changing. A slew of new regulations came out of a workshop held in Jeddah on April 24. Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) officials, the clubs and input from experts from England and Italy, decreed that from next season, clubs would only be able to spend 70 percent of their revenue of transfers and salaries. The rest is reserved for administration, operations and youth development.
There’s more. Squad sizes will be reduced from 33 to 28. There will be a maximum of seven foreign players, more than the four that is common around Asia and too many according to some in the country such as national team defender Saeed Al Mowalad, who complained about the impact on local players in a radio interview in April. He may be happier about the stipulation for clubs to include a minimum of five local players aged 23 or under. There will be focus on improving refereeing standards and facilities for the media.
Such attempts to increase standards on and off the pitch can only be welcome. A little more glamour and excitement would be too. Some star power would boost the profile of the league, given the debts that exist. In April, champions Al Hilal were linked with Monaco striker Radamel Falcao as well as Southampton’s Japanese international Maya Yoshida. With Xavi and Wesley Sneijder in Qatar, Saudi Arabia could do with a few world famous names.
More efforts to promote the league as a regional centre, one that smaller neighbours Kuwait, United Emirates and Oman look towards, could bear fruit. Syrian stars Omar Al Somah and Omar Khribin are playing there, as are some Egyptian, Algerian and Moroccan stars. A few more top Middle Eastern talents would help.
And then there is the 2018 World Cup. As the lowest-ranked nation in the tournament, expectations are not high but there is always a chance in a group containing Russia, Uruguay and Egypt. A result in the opening game against the hosts could mean that a win against Arabian rivals Egypt in the final Group A match is enough to get to the knockout stage and match the heroics of the 1994 team.
Whatever happens, with a squad that is overwhelmingly local-based, a few new heroes wouldn’t go amiss. But whatever happens in Russia, there is a long journey ahead.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.