Dismal Saudi Performance in Asian Cup Sparks Debate

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia has become the France of Asian soccer. The kingdom’s abysmal performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar and its response to its failure is earning it the embarrassment France suffered when its national squad returned to Paris in disgrace last year from the World Cup in South Africa.
A three-time Asian champion and finalist in six of the last seven Asian Cup tournaments, Saudi Arabia failed to advance in Qatar, losing all three matches it played, including a humiliating 5:0 defeat at the feet of the Japanese.
The crisis in Saudi soccer highlights fundamental issues that often stymie Middle Eastern nations in efforts to realize their full potential. In a world of authoritarian regimes that have lost credibility among significant segments of the population, political control of soccer is as important as is control of Islam, the only two forces capable of creating alternative public spaces for pent-up frustration and anger.
That is nowhere more true than in Saudi Arabia, a country where soccer was banned until 1951, with its continued tug of war between more enlightened political and religious forces and ultra-conservatives who insist on sticking to the letter of the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam.
As a result, continuity has not been Saudi soccer’s strong suit, yet it is a key building block for performance. Managers of Saudi soccer are lucky if they keep their jobs for more than a year. Coach Jose Peseiro was sacked after the Saudi squad’s shock 2-1 loss to Syria in their opening Asian Cup match in Qatar. His predecessor, Nasser Al Johar was brought back for a fifth stint, but he too was fired after two more Saudi defeats. And King Abdullah proceeded to dismiss Prince Sultan Bin Fahd as president of the Saudi Football Federation and replace him with his deputy, Prince Nawaf bin Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz.
There is a lot of blame to go around. However, the underperformance of the Kingdom's national team all boils down to one thing. Patience — or the lack of it,” the Jeddah-based Arab News said in an editorial.

The newspaper argued that the kingdom, a country that historically has put a greater premium on religious education than on learning the skills that advance careers, has failed create the kind of infrastructure that allows nations to become and maintain their status as soccer powerhouses. The paper pointed out that the oil-rich kingdom, where soccer was banned until 1951, had yet to allocate resources to develop the game starting at a young age or establish a training academy for talented players.
During last year’s World Cup, Saudi Arabia’s religious guardians, afraid that believers would forget their daily prayers during matches broadcast live on Saudi TV, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of popular cafes where men gathered to watch the games.
Calling for a substantial investment by the government in grassroots soccer, Arab News argued that “there needs to be an understanding that an emphasis on results in youth football is not going to help players' development. Instead, it hinders and discourages them from wanting to play the game because they are not having any fun.
Saudi football authorities need to come to the realization that success does not happen overnight. It will only come with the implementation of a practical long-term vision and substantial investment. The Kingdom can be proud that it has talented children that can play football well. They just need a carrot, not a stick,” the newspaper said.
Soccer development has further been hampered by the fact that the Saudi federation deprives its players of the benefits of extended international experience by discouraging them from going abroad to play for foreign teams.  Participants in a debate on Facebook more than a year ago also raised the continuity issue.
They noted that the ban on playing for foreign clubs means that players hit a ceiling at which they showered with money for each of their victories become complacent. “I am sure there may be other reason why the Saudi national football team struggles internationally, but their inability to play on international teams is a massive hindrance to the progress of Saudi football,” said Bandar, one of the participants.


  1. I appreciate you trying to write on Saudi football and it is an admirable piece, but your article contains numerous errors and misconceptions that need to be addressed.

    The first is the claim that football was "banned" in Saudi Arabia until 1951. This is simply false (and would be irrelevant to 2011 issues even if it were true).

    The second is the claim that Saudi players are "banned" from playing for foreign clubs. This is also patently false. Numerous Saudi players have played abroad, including Sami Al-Jaber (played in England in 2000 and later in Qatar), Fahad Al-Ghesheyyan (played in Holland in 1999), Fuoad Anwar (played in China in 1999), Hussein Suleimani (played the 08-09 season in Switzerland) and Tayseer Al-Jassim (played in Qatar a couple of years ago). The reason Saudi players rarely play abroad is that nobody wants them.

    The third error is your implication that soccer is somehow threatened or hindered by "puriticanical" Islam. This also could not be further from the truth. Just watch a typical Saudi league match and see how many long-bearded figures there are among the players as well as among the fans. In the past 50 years, there has never been any significant hindrance of football in Saudi Arabia for religeous reasons.

    Your fourth error is your implication that Pisseiro's sacking was due to impatiance. Actually, Pisseiro was given more time as Saudi coach (almost 2 years) than any coach in the NT's recent history. The Saudi FA stuck by him even after failing to win any of his last four matches in WC 2010 qualifying and even though most fans and media wanted him sacked. Ironically, it was the FA Chief's decision to stick with the wrong guy (Pisseiro) for so long that eventually led to his downfall. But it is true that they have sacked numerous successful coaches in the past for no good reason and this has been one of the most important factors in the NT's eventual collapse.

    Finally, Sultan bin Fahad was not sacked by the King from the presidency of the Saudi FA -- he was sacked as Minister of Sport. A technicality, since the same person typically holds both positions, but it should be noted nonetheless. By the way, this was a very popular decision in the country.

  2. Thank you for you taking the time to extensively comment. Before responding to several of your I would appreciate if you would email me at incoherentblog@gmail.com. You obviously are very knowledgeable and I would like the opportunity to benefit from that.

    On specific points:
    -- where in your view does the established notion come from that soccer was banned in Saudi Arabia until 1951? I would note that the history does have a degree of relevance, if only to put things in perspective.
    2) There have been indeed a few players that have played abroad as you noted, but there also have been a fair number of offers that players were not able to take up
    3) On the issue of Islam, I beg to disagree. I am fully aware that many deeply religious Saudi Muslims are also soccer fans and have witnessed that myself. It would go to far in this comment to get into a discussion of various trends, political and non-political and so on, within Salafism and the interpretation of Islam based on Muhammed al Wahhab,that wholly justify my comment.

    Finally, I really do hope you get in touch.

  3. Thank you. I will send you my email soon. To answer your points:

    (1) I have no idea where the 1951 ban story comes from. Perhaps someone recently happened upon some fatwa given by some cleric in the country at the time that said soccer was haram and misinterpreted this as some sort of official ban.

    (2) I only know of one case where a player was prevented from playing abroad and that was Nawaf Al-Temyat. He was prevented not by the authorities or the FA but by his own club (Al-Hilal), who refused to part with their star player at the time. Rest assured that if any other player has been prevented, it was not due to the Saudi authorities or the FA. Have you watched the recent S. Arabia v. Japan game? Look at these players! Who on earth would want to hire such lazy, defeatist and unprofessional players?!

    (3) You can find a religious puritan who is opposed to ANYTHING but that does not mean that his opinion has any influence on anyone. Again, in the past 50 years there has been no interference with football in Saudi Arabia on religious grounds. And even if there was, in the past 27 years, Saudi Arabia has already won the Asian Cup 3 times, been runner-up another 3 times, qualified for four consecutive World Cups and for two Olympic tournaments. Saudi clubs have been Asian champions 4 times and runners-up at least 4 times and have won more Asian Cup-Winners Cups than any other country. Saudi clubs are also the most successful in Arab and Gulf club compeitions. So to come now in 2011 and attribute Saudi Arabia's recent failings to "Wahhabism" makes absolutely no sense. It is simply an irrelevant point. It's quite bothersome really to see Islam and "Wahhabism" shoehorned into every topic involving Saudi Arabia even when they're of no relevance whatsoever.

  4. Thanks, I look forward to your mail. Let me comment here on one of your points: I agree that any religious interpretation that suits one purpose. I also know that Saudis resent the continuous reference to Wahhabism. And indeed over time Saudi has performed well. Having said all of that I look quite closely at the debate among Salafis as well as the use of soccer by militants, both political and purely non-political religious and there is a minority that is significant although I don't know how numerous that opposes the game as such.

  5. Posted on behalf of Mandi Fahmy:

    I really like this analysis:
    "The crisis in Saudi soccer highlights fundamental issues that often stymie Middle Eastern nations in efforts to realize their full potential. In a world of authoritarian regimes that have lost credibility among significant segments of the population, political control of soccer is as important as is control of Islam, the only two forces capable of creating alternative public spaces for pent-up frustration and anger."

  6. I think one of the reasons why Saudi players didn't play abroad is the fact that no Saudi players has yet to surpass the level of local football. While producing some good technical players in the past, none of them was good enough for a European league and the strength of the local league and the lucrative contracts meant that players always preferred to stay at home or make the move between two local clubs. The same can be said about the rest of the gulf countries as well.

  7. Furat, that is indeed probably true. Fact of the matter is however, that there certainly are opportunities that may not be immediately at the top but would allow players to grow. Fact of the matter is one has to work for success and to a degree temporarily sacrifice, but its obvious from your comment that you know that as well as I do.


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