As the World Cup brings some of the sport’s best-known names to Qatar, youth football academies in neighboring Saudi Arabia are expecting a spike in enrollments but are pushing for more investment.
The Gulf Kingdom has long been obsessed with football, but interest in playing – not just watching – has surged in recent years amid a government push to promote physical activity as part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda bin Salman.
Among the wannabe Messis and Neymars is 11-year-old Abdulrahman al-Ghamdi, who first donned cleats two years ago, encouraged by an uncle who once played for prestigious local club Al Nassr.
“One day I got on the field and I started to like it,” Ghamdi told TBEN during a recent training session.
But Ghamdi fears he has already fallen behind colleagues in other countries with more advanced training pipelines.
“I don’t really think I’m going to be a high-level footballer because in England they have better benefits… and professional people,” he said.
“There are young kids who are much better than me.”
Even before World Cup fever descended on the region with its first edition in the Arab world, local academies struggled to meet the needs of young people taking to the field.
Leveling the playing field should be a top priority as Saudi Arabia develops its youth teams and may compete for the rights to host the 2030 World Cup, said Karim Ziane, general manager of the kingdom’s French Football Federation academy.
Saudi Arabia is “definitely” a football country, he told TBEN.
“They love to play, they love to watch, they love to cheer and support. This passion is no different than anywhere else,” said Ziane. “The only difference is whether they can access it or not.”
– Room for improvement –
The French academy opened its first facility in the capital Riyadh in January and has since added five more, including in Jeddah and Dammam, training a total of 500 young players.
During a recent evening practice in Riyadh, more than 20 teenagers practiced passing drills and shot at mini-goals before a short line of scrimmage, with their parents cheering them on from the sidelines.
The field, on a residential complex, is a rarity in the Saudi capital: made of natural grass and large enough for an 11-a-side match, unlike smaller fields of synthetic turf.
“You have to take into account that it will certainly not be the same as in, say, Europe or France, so you have to forget what you know and adapt to what awaits you,” said Ziane.
Wilfried Louisy-Daniel, a former professional player in France who now coaches in Saudi Arabia, said he was impressed by the enthusiasm for the sport but “some things still need to be developed”.
Specifically, more youth teams are needed so players can compete closer to home instead of having to travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) for a match, he said.
Demand will only increase during and after the World Cup, he estimated, especially if the Saudi team goes on a deep run.
The Green Falcons have qualified for six World Cups, but only made it to the knockout stages once on their debut in 1994.
“If we have a good campaign, on top of it being the first World Cup in the Middle East, it will certainly generate a lot of excitement,” said Louisy-Daniel.
– Train like the stars –
Challenges aside, several Saudi players told TBEN they were determined to become football stars, recognizing that other players came from much poorer backgrounds to reach the elite stages.
“Most of the footballers at the World Cup had to train like me, and they had to train very hard, and some people had a bit more difficulty,” said 11-year-old Nawaf al-Jaser.
“I really want to train more so I can be like them.”
If all goes well, Jaser could one day get the chance to play in a World Cup match in front of a home crowd.
An Egyptian official said in September that Egypt, Greece and Saudi Arabia were in talks over a joint proposal to host the tournament in 2030.
But even if that doesn’t happen, Jaser is eager to put Saudi football on the map.
“In most of the really good teams in Europe, there are not many Saudi players, and I hope I can change that” and “change the world of football,” he said.