Thirteen years ago in March I wrote a short report for English magazine, When Saturday Comes. It was to be the first of three pieces for the publication in the World Cup build up.
I was based in Saudi Arabia at the time and combining my regular work with some coaching and consulting on the side. It was a strange time to be there. I arrived on a Thursday early morning in September 2001, the following Tuesday was the 11th.
Some of my students were from the Bin Laden family and within days of the incidents in the USA, I was getting calls to head home. But the two years are a story for another day. I was focussed on work and football, not really concerned with the greater geopolitical events, or trying not to be concerned.
I played football with a third level side and saw first hand the way football was both administered and underdeveloped. I met club owners and their Secretaries who seemed to want to outdo themselves with tales of their daring deeds. I found it distasteful as I’d never thought this could be happening in football. In boxing I’d had the usual dodgy experiences, but football?
The club owner, a minor Prince of the Al-Saud family, met personally with me. I was brought to his attention through a Jordanian footballer and after the usual Arabic formalities, I was offered the equivalent of $100 a game and $20 for training, plus I’d get some cash for helping develop the club.
The Prince was ambitious enough. He’d assembled a decent collection of talent, two Jordanians, a Nigerian, a Kenyan and a Serbian player-coach and clubs Director of Football. I was to slot into midfield to make myself felt and set up the good players.
The Serbian, Branko, was in his early 40s and a convert to Islam. He’d been a goalkeeper in the old Yugoslav Second Division before spending 12 years coaching and playing in the Middle East. The “foreigners” trained together and the first time I met our Saudi team-mates was on a Friday (the local Sunday) afternoon at the stadium.
The season was already two games old when I joined and we were pointless and scoreless. I was wondering why we were not doing better as we had some good players, but after five minutes play I could see why.
I’d expected the locals might be out of shape but after half and hour in +30 heat, on a rough sand pitch, myself and the Jordanians were the only ones still running. After a scoreless draw, the President asked me to assist Branko as part of my overall remit. I agreed to give it a go.
By the end of October the team had turned around and we we’d won three of the four games I’d played in. Branko was in amazing form, the Kenyan was unstoppable on the left wing and the Nigerian was scoring goals. Local lads began to train with us and there was a better atmosphere around the place.
Then we met the league leaders, still owned by the half-brother of our own Prince. They were tough, dirty and getting all the decisions. Murmurs of the officials being bought didn’t make sense to me, people just made mistakes, so I paid no heed.
At half-time we were losing 0-1 yet far from hopeless. Our Prince, crisp white abaya glowing, arrived into our dressing room and launched a tirade at Branko. A full head taller and half a body wider, our coach could have flattened him, instead the Krusevac-born Serb just looked at the floor and nodded. It was all in Arabic so I couldn’t follow, but somehow I was involved as I kept hearing my name mentioned, fingers pointing in my direction also gave me an inkling.
I’d a nasty experience in Jeddah’s “Chop Chop Square”, as a spectator, and I was a bit worried that I’d be soon there as the spectacle. Just as I had figured a way to escape back to my compound, Branko substituted the two Africans with locals and put me up front on my own. It worked out as I scored a goal and we drew 1-1, though it was concerning for me that the owner would behave that way.
On Sunday, the two lads were not at training, the story went that they’d been bought off by the league leaders. I never saw either of them again, nor did they play in the remaining year and a half I was in the Kingdom. In January we played a regional cup semi-final and were heavy favourites. In our team talk Branko told us we were to put up a good show but to take it easy.
Idiot that I am, I asked what did he mean? Did we have to go easy on tackles or what? He shook his head and left. I felt completely alone, covering every grain of sand as we lost to one of the poorest teams I’d ever seen. Our Prince had just completed a construction deal with the owner of our opponents, I was told after.
The first article published by WSC was to uncover a little of the strange nature of Saudi football. The second was to tell the tale of Saudi’s great World Cup run in 1994 and a third article was an analysis of the Saudi team for the 2002 World Cup.
I only discovered the first article was published when the brother of one student (who was studying in London) sent an email, then a scan of the article came through and one rather excitable colleague used it as teaching material.
When my boss, a man who never met a bribe or hamburger to disagree with, called me into his office and read me the riot act, I found it a little amusing. The head honcho in the Academy visited my office, told me to be more careful but then proceeded to tell me stories of acting as a bag man for one of the Jeddah clubs.
The offending article is below:
Alan Moore explains why the Gulf kingdom is unlikely to spring many surprises at this year’s World Cup, not to attract any high profile foreign players
Saudi Arabia arrived on the international scene with one of the greatest goals in World Cup history. Saed Al Owarain’s mazy run and shot against Belgium in 1994 lit the fuse for a footballing explosion in one of the most private and secretive countries on earth. But despite another World Cup qualification this time around, their third in a row, Saudi football has been in steady decline for some time.
The oil boom of the Eighties saw magnificent stadiums spring up from the desert sands, before anyone had worked out how to fill them. In a country where, contrary to western clichés, the majority subsist near the poverty line, going to live events isn’t as important as knowing where the next meal is coming from. In addition half of the population – women – are not allowed attend matches. As a result, attendances are generally poor, rising only for big matches when tickets are greatly reduced in price or free.
Apart from the cost of living, the main problem lies with the club owners – high-ranking princes, who see the game as an extension of their power and prestige, own the top teams in the country. Clubs like Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Shabab all have wealthy backers who pump in cash , but with strings attached. It is the owners’ right to choose who should play, the tactics used and even whether or not the team needs to win.
Strange results are the norm here. Lower teams, also partially owned by princes linked with top sides, roll over when their higher-ranked opponents need the goals. Many coaches have bitten the dust because their ethics got in the way of their orders. The most recent example was Al Hilal’s Artur Jorge (formerly national coach of Portugal), who got the boot for refusing to select a player “owned” by one of the princes, despite the fact that the club led the league and were playing tremendous football. Jorge’s replacement, the former coach of Colombia Francisco Maturana, knew where his next pay cheque was coming from and selected the player in question.
Constant coaching changes, “mysterious” transfers and unusual results create a product that television has an increasingly difficult job selling. Fans prefer to watch the top European games available on satellite. There are a fair few European players here, and some Africans, but no household names. Italia 90 star Roberto Donadoni once played with Ittihad, as did Dalian Atkinson. The lesser teams are populated with cheap imports, often from former Soviet republics such as Uzbekistan. The Brazilian influence that began when Rivelino signed for Al Hilal of Riyadh in 1978 has dissipated, though Romário was paid US$1 million to play three games for Al Ittifaq to keep them in the top flight in 1994-95 (he hardly touched a ball, coming on as sub in two of the games).
Substandard foreign buys frustrate fans who believe the wealthy princes could buy internationally recognised stars. The truth is somewhat different. With the economy shrinking, the game’s backers are looking elsewhere for investment opportunities. Money is moving abroad and into other sports. Currently Saudi cash is spent on such enterprises as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (ice hockey), the Toronto Blue Jays (baseball) and Toyota Motorsports.
A constant bone of contention for followers is the complete insularity of the sport. Players can’t leave Saudi Arabia without express permission of the club’s owners or sponsors, even if they have no contract. The peculiarities of Saudi emigration laws and an endemic backhander culture have meant foreign clubs are extremely reluctant to try tempting players abroad. That Wolves were allowed to take Sami Al Jaber on loan in 2000 was very surprising – a recent approach from Brescia for him stalled because too many people here wanted a slice of the pie. Valencia were regularly linked with an outstanding young striker, Nawaf Al Tamyat, until his club owner said he would never leave the country. In a country with pliable labour laws and no unions, players daren’t hope for new challenges.
Football is still the nation’s No 1 sport, but the single biggest problem in the kingdom is the lack of facilities. Top clubs play and train on immaculate pitches, but 99 per cent of players make do with sand or tarmac. An average player’s ball control outranks his counterpart in Britain, but put them on grass and fundamental flaws appear. The game becomes individual, devoid of physical contact or tackling, and lacks cohesion. If Saudi Arabia is to make another impact at international level, it must build from the bottom up.
From WSC 183, May 2002
So, how did my season pan out? I played 16 times, scored four goals and had nine assists. We had a chance to push for promotion but were told to “go easy” again in the penultimate game. I didn’t ask why, I “felt sick” before kick off and sat on the bench.
Branko went on to work with a number of teams in Saudi before retiring to work as a driver for our Prince. I didn’t return for a second season, playing rugby, GAA and expat league soccer instead. I thought I’d be leaving it behind when I went to Croatia.
That football in Saudi Arabia was completely in thrall to the Princes was not a shock for me. That matches were decided by the owners was. However I have seen the same occur in Croatia, Malta, Austria, Bosnia, Russia, Libya and, I believe, Germany.
That FIFA would permit the player abuses that went (and from reports still go) on and the prevention of women from playing the game was disappointing. Saudi Arabia had a fair amount of talent in the late-90s/early-2000s with a vibrant league and decent action.
However, by employing coaches who did/do what they’re told and not building the proper structures within the community, the Saudi FF has failed, yet FIFA still sends funds. Funds for results to be agreed in advance, player abuse and complete segregation in the game.
Coming soon – Part 4 – Biscuit tins, double contracts, black-white payments and fun with finance.