Sporting Gijón’s welcome tweet to greet a new signing on 21 January got the name of the player – Abdullah al-Hamdan – mixed up with the name of the club he arrived from: al-Shabab. Perhaps the Spanish team were just so excited about their new Saudi Arabian import or perhaps they did not really have any idea who he was.
Just like the simultaneous arrival of alien spaceships above various global cities – provoking curiosity and confusion – there were similar deals being announced on social media all over Spain, as nine Saudi Arabian players joined clubs in the top three tiers on loan until the end of the season. From having virtually no players in action overseas, there is now almost an entire starting Saudi XI for fans at home to keep an eye out for.
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That is the reasoning both in Riyadh and in Spain, where there is a desperation to get Saudis watching Spanish football. With the World Cup looming, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) and the country’s General Sports Authority (GSA) were acutely aware that none of the squad play outside the kingdom, making a group containing Russia, Egypt and Uruguay that little bit harder. While friendlies against good opposition is a start, playing in La Liga would be the perfect build-up, if selected.
Not all the nine will be in Russia. Levante’s Fahad al-Muwallad, full of pace and flair and whose goal secured qualification, will be there, as will Villarreal’s Salem al-Dawsari. Yahya al-Shehri, now with Leganés, will get the call, too.
Those that do not can still benefit and perhaps inspire others. “There are some good players here and it will be a great experience for them,” Mike Newell, now director of football at al-Shabab, told the Observer. The former Everton and Blackburn striker admits it will not be easy. “It will be a big shock for them in many ways as Saudi players don’t usually go overseas but, if just one of them is a success, then it will be massive for Saudi football.”
It is a big if, almost as big as the jump from the Saudi Premier League to La Liga. The man behind the move is the GSA head, Turki al-Alshaikh, who wants his players “to learn what it is to be real professionals, gain experience and represent Saudi Arabia abroad. I have infinite faith in the ability of our players. It is our role, all of us, to back them in this experience, which will be the beginning of many more transfers to Europe.”
Alshaikh has called on the clubs to understand the needs of the national team. Yet benefits for Saudi Arabia, even theoretical ones, are more apparent than they are at the Spanish end. As well as sponsorship, clubs are getting a free player for half a season as the salaries will be paid from Saudi Arabia but, with coaches free to select them or not, many think it will be the latter. One leading Saudi official was scathing: “They are not going to play at all and that is going to be a problem at some point. Everyone knows Saudi players need to start going overseas but this is not the way.” Nor is it the time. “This is the middle of the season and clubs are losing some of their best players.”
There is the matter of standards, too. Many Spanish scouts attending a Saudi training camp in October in Portugal were just not interested.
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La Liga is also keen to expand its appeal in the Middle East. Too much so, according to the Spanish players’ union. “This new business model,” it said in a statement, “prioritises the economic aspect over the sporting one, sacrificing the essence of this sport and favouring business over the promotion and development of our footballers.”
It is also a risky commercial strategy. Park Ji-sung helped expand Manchester United’s appeal and profits in South Korea, and to a lesser extent, Asia. The flip side of that coin bears the likeness of Park Chu-young, the striker who played only seven minutes of league action for Arsenal from 2011 to 2014. Initial interest fades quickly when a star does not feature and resentment can result. When an Arsenal visit to Korea was floated in 2012, the local reaction was largely negative. That summer the Gunners made it to Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beijing but not Seoul.
How welcome certain Spanish teams will be in Saudi Arabia in the future depends on events over the next few months. If some of the country’s best players are left cooling heels in the run-up to Russia, disquiet among Saudi fans may match the confusion among their Iberian counterparts.
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