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How Saudi Arabian Football is Thriving

In June 1994, Saudi Arabian football saw a watershed moment when Saeed al-Owairan slalomed past the Belgian defense in Washington to propel the Green Falcons into the knockout rounds.

For reasons that have nothing to do with the country’s Public Investment Fund buying an 80 percent interest in Newcastle United, October 2021 is unquestionably the finest since. With two wins in the last round of qualifying against Vietnam and Oman under their belts, the national team upset Japan, long considered as Asia’s finest, 1-0 at the end of the first week. Five days later, in front of 50,000 ecstatic supporters in Jeddah, they won a dramatic 3-2 triumph against China.

Saudi Arabia is the only one of Asia’s 12 surviving qualifiers to have a flawless record, having completed four of the ten games in the stage. A year from now, it would be surprising if the squad did not make the short trip to Qatar.

Hervé Renard, who took over as coach in July 2019 after leaving Morocco, has given Salman al-Faraj and Salem al-team Dawsari’s a more aggressive and hardworking attitude. The three-time Asian champions are sure of a great outcome in November when they travel to Australia.

The national team isn’t the only one who is on the rise. The Saudi Professional League, aided by the Chinese Super League’s financial difficulties, is undoubtedly the most entertaining on the continent.

Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr, the two prominent Riyadh teams with 26 league championships between them, were in action in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals four days after their triumph over China.

The duo knew they’d meet in the western zone semi-final if they won the event, which was separated into two geographic parts (east and west) until the final. They accomplished it with such ease. The United Arab Emirates’ Al-Wahda was trounced 5-1 by Al-Nassr. Al-Hilal then cruised to a 3-0 victory over Iranian powerhouse Persepolis.

Three days later, a tense all-Saudi semi-final ensued, with one half of the Riyadh stadium painted yellow and the other blue. After a post-match scuffle, Al-Hilal defender Ali al-Bulaihi performed a Graeme Souness and placed the club flag on the center spot.

Enormous Saudi clubs, in comparison to competing leagues in the area like as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, can produce big atmospheres. Some of the crowd tifos are excellent, and there should be another in the Champions League final on November 23, when Al-Hilal is anticipated to win a record fourth Asian title against the Pohang Steelers of South Korea.

Saudi Arabia might not spend nearly as much on international players as China did a few years ago, but there are plenty of stars in the country. In May, Al-Hilal won their 17th league title, adding Matheus Pereira and Moussa Marega to a lineup that already had Bafétimbi Gomis, a former France international, and other Saudi internationals. The manager is Leonardo Jardim, who guided Monaco to the French title in 2017.

Former Morocco striker Abderrazak Hamdallah, Cameroon international Vincent Aboubakar, Anderson Talisca, and Pity Martnez, the 2018 South American player of the year, are all on the Al-Nassr roster.

If fundamental issues were rectified, the future would be even brighter. When it comes to hiring and firing coaches, chronic short-termism no longer surprises, but it still shocks. Al-Ittihad, who finished third last season and were in first place this season until being defeated by two goals by Al-red-hot Shabab’s Odion Ighalo last weekend, sacked their manager after one game, while Al-Taawoun and Al-Tai fired their managers after two games apiece.

August was the month in question. With the season only a third of the way through, seven of the 16 clubs have changed coaches. It’s hardly surprising that managers have little motivation to look beyond the next game or take chances on young players.

The league permits seven foreign players per club, compared to four in other Asian countries, and teams seek to bolster their attacking talent. It’s disputed if this is a result or cause of Saudi Arabia’s inability to develop attackers to replace Sami al-Jaber, who played in four World Cups and scored three goals.

Abdullah al-Hamdan was touted as the next great thing and signed a big-money deal with Al-Hilal in February, but the 22-year-old has played less than an hour this season. Local players going overseas would solve the problem, but that has yet to materialize.

Clubs must also be freed from government control and created as private sports companies in order for administration, management, and marketing to meet the quality of the game. This component of the country’s Vision 2030 strategy for economic diversification has been postponed. Clubs nevertheless have a propensity of amassing large debts and requiring a bailout, as was the case in 2018, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman donated almost £245 million to erase the debts of top-flight clubs.

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