Over the past month Saudi Arabia has been the centre of extensive international news coverage for all the right reasons.
Under the young Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the kingdom set-off on an accelerated economic and social modernisation programme, particularly the long-awaited decision to revoke an infamous unwritten law that had prevented women from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Football has always been a key part of Saudi society and unsurprisingly, it was also at the heart of this new phase of reformation dubbed by many as “The Fourth Saudi State”. In the same month that Saudi women earned their right to drive, its national team celebrated a return to the World Cup after 12 years of absence from the world’s top sporting event.
Under Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk, the Green Falcons pipped the likes of Australia and the UAE to join historic rivals Japan in Russia 2018. But, for all the changes van Marwijk brought to the first team, this was only the tip of an iceberg of changes that swept the sport in the Gulf’s largest nation.
While international news outlets focused on the end of the women’s driving ban, other equally important changes have been taking place in the background, making an impact inside the kingdom but failing to make headlines abroad. Since King Salman took over in 2015, Saudi Arabia effectively abolished its infamous religious police, allowed music concerts for the first time since the 1980s, introduced physical education classes to girls’ schools, established female gyms and most recently passed an anti-sexual harassment law.
It has often been said that football can be a metaphor for society, and this has never been truer than in the case of Saudi Arabia, where social changes were mirrored by sporting ones.
As van Marwijk focused on getting his tactics right, instilling discipline in his squad and creating a sense of unity and pride in the national team, his backroom staff were busy making significant changes to the football system in the country. In fact, the Dutchman rarely spent any time in Saudi beyond pre-match preparations and matchdays. His assistant, former Netherlands captain Mark van Bommel, handled the responsibility of scouting players from the league and delivering reports.
The unknown soldier in this operation was a Belgian coach named Jan van Winckel; a former assistant for Marcelo Bielsa at Olympique Marseille, he first stepped foot in Saudi in 2002 as an assistant to Aad de Moss at Al Hilal, and in 2015 was brought in to serve as a technical director for the Saudi Football Federation. His role involved the development of Saudi coaches and grassroots football. In his two years in charge, van Winckel helped double the number of registered footballers in the country, while expanding the number of football academies and training courses available for young Saudis wanting to pursue a coaching career.
‘Live the Challenge’, a nationwide Under-14s competition divided by regions, saw over 5,000 players participate and the top 40 scouted players played the finals at Real Madrid’s iconic Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
The General Sports Authority, a government body tasked with developing sports in the country launched an ambitious scouting project. The National Scouting Committee was set up, comprising of former Saudi international players who have played in the World Cup and represented the top five most popular clubs. The committee members toured the country from Al Ahsa in the east, to Jazan near the Yemeni border to the capital Riyadh, and identified 70 players as the nation’s starts of the future. The players will be placed in a special programme to develop them into professionals capable of playing at the top level of European football and representing the national team.
Crucially, and for the first time, the national team scouts dipped into the previously untapped talent pool of Saudi-born expat players. A strong social sentiment against the naturalisation of expats meant there was historically little will to look at these players, but the “Fourth Saudi State” is indeed taking a different approach to things.
Eleven Saudi-born players were identified as hot prospects, some of whom play their football in the lower tiers of Saudi league or even in the non-league “Hawari” – neighbourhood – pitches, while some plied their trade abroad.
Mukhtar Ali, one of Chelsea’s army of loanees at Vitesse Arnhem, represented England at U-16 and U-17 levels, but was born in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents and lived his early childhood in the kingdom before moving to the UK. Ali has been called-up to an exclusive training camp alongside the other 10 players; two Sudanese, two Yemenis, two Egyptians, two Nigeriens, one Nigerian, one Malian.
They will be training in a reserve pitch a stone’s throw away from where the national team is holding its first training camp under new manager Edgardo Bauza in preparation for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Then there’s 18-year-old Faris Abdi, a Saudi student at the University of Virginia and also a member of the U-18 US national team squad. He has been fast-tracked straight into the national team’s camp where Bauza will take a closer look at him with a view of handing him his competitive debut before the US does.
Bert van Marwijk’s reign has ended, despite leading the team to the World Cup. New Football Federation head Adel Ezzat was reluctant to have him continue managing the team remotely, and Bauza was instantly brought to replace him amidst scepticism over whether the Argentine who failed to impress with his homeland’s national team was the right man for the job.
But with all the work being done in the background, Bauza will have every reason to succeed. For the newly appointed head of the General Sports Authority, Turki Al Asheikh, van Marwijk is the past and the new Saudi Arabia looks in just one direction; forward to the future.