When Saudi Arabia loaned out its stars to Spain, eyebrows were raised. The aim? To improve their team before the Fifa World Cup.
When the announcement was made, it is safe to say that pretty much no one in the industrial city of Villarreal, just an hour’s drive north of València on Spain’s eastern coast, had heard of Salem Al-Dawsari. But, on a bright and cold winter morning in January, that was all about to change. In front of a room full of journalists, the 26-year-old midfielder was introduced to the world as Villarreal’s latest signing. It was a historic moment. Villarreal can rightfully be considered one of the best teams in arguably the best league in the world. The club are fifth in La Liga and aiming for a spot in the UEFA Champions League. They are famous for their dazzling kit, raucous fans, and iconic nickname: The Yellow Submarine. And here they were, unveiling potentially the first player from Saudi Arabia to ever play in La Liga. Despite having qualified for several Fifa World Cup finals and having a well-funded and well attended national league, Saudi players didn’t play abroad. Only Sami Al-Jaber – the legendary striker who played in four and scored in three Fifa World Cup finals – had moved to a big European team. But his five months at Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2000 were ended early by his club, Al Hilal. He hadn’t scored a goal.
Now, almost two decades later, another Al Hilal player is aiming to beat that record. If anyone can make it in Europe’s elite, it’s Al-Dawsari, a dazzling winger who is perhaps the most talented player in Saudi Arabia’s national team. Speaking through an interpreter, he told the assembled press that this was his dream, to play in Spain. So many people watched the live stream of his press conference that Villarreal’s website crashed.
Yet Al-Dawsari’s unveiling wasn’t quite all that it seemed. His press conference stirred some controversy in Spain thanks to a business deal that, for some, represented a unique experiment as well as proof that Saudi Arabia was opening its doors to the world. To others, it represented the very essence of money controlling sport.
Last October, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and the General Sports Authority, the government body that runs sport in the Kingdom, announced a unique partnership. Together with La Liga, Saudi Arabia would loan out its top stars. The aim? To improve their players before the 2018 Fifa World Cup finals this summer in Russia.
Saudi Arabia has some history in the Fifa World Cup. At the 1994 tournament in the USA they became the first team from the Middle East to reach the knockout stages. Along the way, Saeed Al-Owairan scored one of the greatest goals in Fifa World Cup history. The last two finals, though, didn’t go so well: six games and five defeats, including an 8-0 thrashing by Germany in 2002. This time, the Saudi federation decided, things would be different. A plan was put in place, a deal was signed, and La Liga scouts were sent to watch two Saudi Arabia national team friendlies in Portugal. Dozens more scouts came to Riyadh to see the Saudi Pro League in action.
“I want to learn from my mistakes and to reach a high level. I am not representing only myself. I am representing Saudi Arabia”
By the end, nine players were chosen. While six younger recruits would play for teams in Spain’s second and third divisions, three players would go straight to teams in La Liga: Fahad Al-Muwallad to Levante, Yahya Al-Shehri to Leganés and Al-Dawsari to Villarreal.
“I want to learn from my mistakes and to reach a high level,” AlDawsari says when I meet him at Villarreal’s training ground. “I am not representing only myself. I am representing Saudi Arabia.”
Al-Dawsari has only been in the city for a few days and just trained three times. He’s coming to terms with the food and is looking for a mosque in the city so he can attend Friday prayers. But he is also ambitious and talks about how he’s there on merit. He believes he’s good enough to compete in Spanish football. “I will not reach the same level of the famous players in one night, or one day,” he says when asked whether he felt ready to step on to the same pitch as Cristiano Ronaldo. “I need to practice every single day. And I am ready for that.”
The deal also represents something much bigger. Under the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the country has begun something of a cultural revolution. Women have finally been given permission to drive. Cinemas will reopen. In January it was announced that women would be allowed to attend football matches for the first time. Saudi players moving in big numbers, when virtually none have moved before, sends a message. “Saudi is changing for the better, for sure,” believes Al-Dawsari.
There has been some pushback against the deal. The Spanish players’ union believes it places commerce, rather than talent first. Certainly, the Spanish league and the clubs that have taken Saudi players on loan have made no secret of their desire to tap into a potentially huge new market. Saudi Arabia has a deep internet penetration and a vociferous social media scene. Further proof of that can be seen on the Twitter feeds of Villarreal, Levante, and Leganés. Every single post is swamped with Saudi replies and comments.
The Spanish clubs have made no secret of their desire to tap into a potentially huge new market
But now the experiment has become reality. How much meaningful pitch time the three players get will in some way determine how successful this unique deal will be. “The league here is very different, it is quicker and faster,” Al-Muwallad says. He was left out of the squad for his first game, a 2-2 draw with Real Madrid, but he too believes he will adapt. “It is very difficult. But I will give it all I can.”
Ultimately, though, Saudi Arabia’s performance at this year’s Fifa World Cup will be the true arbiter of success. And there will be no bigger platform to test themselves. The Green Falcons will play Russia in the opening game in Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on June 14. The Spanish clubs have so far got what they wanted. Now, Saudi fans are waiting for their players to make their mark. VM
THREE MORE ARAB PLAYERS TO WATCH
Hakim Ziyech: The Ajax attacking midfielder made his debut for Morocco in 2014 – despite being born in the Netherlands and representing that country at international level. He has good technique, is dangerous from free kicks, and is as likely to score as set something up for a teammate. Largely playing in the center or on the right, he’s been the focus of most of Morocco’s attacking football.
Mohamed Salah: The Egyptian is the current CAF African Footballer of the Year and is having the best season of his career. He was the top scorer with five goals during Fifa World Cup qualification, including both goals in the crucial 2-1 win over Congo, which sent the Pharaohs to their first tournament since 1990. If they’re going to do anything of note, it’s likely that it will come from this player.
Ramadan Sobhi: The Egyptian is only 21 but is having a strong Premier League season at Stoke City. Signed from Al Ahly at the start of last season, he’s held his own well in the English league. He’s the second-youngest player for Egypt – making his debut at 18 – and has 19 caps so far. With Mohamed Salah on the other side of the pitch, Egypt could have a decent chance of doing some damage in the group.
Words: James Montague, Illustration: David Hoskins
Originally printed in Vogue Arabia Man Spring/Summer 2018