July 3, 1994
Brazilian referee Renato Marsiglia blows the final whistle as Sweden advances to the quarterfinals of World Cup 94 after beating Saudi Arabia 3-1 in Dallas’ Cotton Bowl. An early goal by Martin Dahlin devastated the Saudis, only for Kennet Andersson to double the lead 10 minutes within the 2nd half. Subbed in Fahad Al Ghesheyan manages to make it 2-1 in the 85th minute with a skillful and spectacular goal. Kennet Andersson scored his second and Sweden’s third minutes later and puts any small hope the Saudis had to rest. Saudi Arabia were out, but had made a remarkable debut for an Asian country in the World Cup. They were the second Asian country in history to ever qualify to the second round. Players such as Saeed Al Owairan became names that rang across the globe. The sky was truly the limit.
February 29, 2012
Korean referee Kim Dong Jin blows the final whistle as Saudi Arabia come crashing down after losing 4-2 in Melbourne’s AAMI Park subsequently, failing to make it to the final stages of the Asian World Cup qualifications. Dropping points against Thailand, Oman, and Australia, they only managed to muster up one win in the entire third round of qualification, which came against Thailand in Saudi Arabia. For the second consecutive time Saudi Arabia had failed to reach the World Cup, since Germany 2006. From the 4 consecutive World Cups that Saudi Arabia had qualified for, none of them came remotely close to the achievement of USA 94. An end of an era which sounded more like a reality.
Something unusual is happening to Saudi football. The men’s national team is not qualifying towards the continental and international competitions, and even if it does, ends up failing miserably. Saudi clubs of today cannot compete on a global stage in an attempt to reach the heights Al Ittihad had back in 04 and 05. How could such a continental powerhouse fall so rapidly from grace? The answer in itself is complex, but to keep things simple, the answer will be divided into 3 main categories: player wages and contracts, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and the youth development program.
Player Wages & Contracts:
In 1999, Marzouq Al Otaibi moved from Al Shabab to Al Ittihad for a record 9 million Saudi Riyals (1.8 million Euros) after a remarkable and electrifying performance in the Confederations Cup in Mexico, in which he won both the Bronze Shoe and Boot in the competition. The amount spent was something of an amazement for the average Saudi fan.
Little did they know that within 6 years time, that amount would be considered marginal as Yasser Al Qahtani secured a move from Al Qadisiyah to Al Hilal for 30 million Saudi Riyals (6 million Euros). The inflation had begun. The most recent being that of 23-year-old winger Yahya Al Shehri who moved from Al Ettifaq to Al Nasr for a whopping 50 million Saudi Riyals (9.7 million Euros) last summer. At this point, Al Shehri cost more than Carlos Tevez, Dries Mertens, and Jose Callejon, among many others, of course.
This irrational valuation of local players by Saudi clubs had resulted in a stagnation of performance of all those involved. No European clubs interested in Saudi players would ever match these offers, and as a result the chance of watching Saudi players play in Europe went from minimal to obsolete. Even under-performing players became the platform of a bidding war between rival clubs, which resulted in players having no ambition nor any pride in aiming to achieve more. The thought of a hefty paycheck regardless of performance sounded good. Today, only four clubs in Saudi Arabia have the resources to buy whomever they please, resulting in every other club in league becoming a feeder club to the elite. This has killed competition making the league predictable and only worth watching for a handful of fixtures.
Saudi Arabia’s governing football body has long been under the scrutiny and blame after the noticeable deterioration in the matter of events that matter. Year after year, the Green Falcons’ have only disappointed – be it the World Cup, the Asian Cup, or the Gulf Cup of Nations. The former president of the FA, Prince Sultan bin Fahd reportedly once told a French news agency that Saudi Arabia will be in a front runner in the competition for the 2010 World Cup according to “planned scientific plans.” Little did his highness know that these words would haunt Saudi fans after every failure making them question if there was any merit to that statement at all. Prince Sultan resigned as SAFF president after Saudi Arabia’s failure in the 2011 Asian Cup, after being knocked out of the group stages with no points and a goal difference of negative seven. The group had Saudi matched up with Japan, Jordan, and Syria.
His successor – Prince Nawaf bin Faisal faced similar disappointing results with the national team’s early exit from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. An interesting point to raise is that of the head coach of the national team, which has been replaced ‘a mere’ seven times since crashing out of the World Cup in 2006, with two of these appointments being none other than the famous interim manager Nasser Al Johar. The head coach hot seat has featured names over the years as world renowned as Mario Zagallo, Carlos Alberto Parreira, and Frank Rijkaard being the latest. The latter serving the least of the three, yet considered a lifetime of tolerance in the face of bad results. The Dutchman’s time in charge of the national team saw a winning percentage of only 25.93 % out of 27 matches.
Youth Development Program:
Saudi Arabia’s U-20 national team made a good showing in the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup. The team managed to finish second in the group, only to be knocked out in the round of 16 by eventual champions – Brazil. The Brazilian team featured the likes of Coutinho, Oscar, and Willian among its ranks. Regardless, the Saudis were blazing through the group stages. With players such as Fahd Al Muwallad, Yasir Al Fahmi, and Abdullah Otayf making a name for themselves. However, out of the entire squad however, only a handful made it through to see first team action.
Abdullah Otayf had a short stint in Portugal’s second division only to come back and join Al Hilal less than a year later. Defender Abdullah Al Hafith had a similar experience as Otayf. The rest have slowly faded away, either due to injury, or have simply been forgotten. The neglecting of youth players has long been an issue for Saudi clubs. The structure of nurturing young players and preparing them for the next stage is almost nonexistent. The scouting system for young talent is chaotic with no effort exerted by those in charge. Many promising players let go of pursuing a career in football after being exposed to the conditions on their way to feature in any first team football, and maybe if they’re lucky enough, a chance to represent the men’s national team.
So what’s next?
With the current setup of Saudi Arabian football, a turnaround to old glories does not seem possible in the near future. An occasional glimmer of hope might show up every now and then, but eventually the harsh reality that the problem is bigger than what is on the surface. It will emerge and simultaneously disappear in the face of a new disappointment. A major overhaul from all aspects and parties involved, is a must if Saudi Arabia ever wants to step back in the limelight.
Saudi football’s Golden Generation is finally over. They had a great run with a core group of players through the 90’s to mid-2000’s. Once they retired there was no one else comparable. Same situation with Portugal now, happened with Germany in 2000, France in 2006.
The strength of Saudi’s Golden Generation was such that it was able to succeed no matter who coached the side – 25+ coaching changes from 1990 – 2007, with 4 qualifications to the World Cup, 4 Asian Cup Final appearances, 3 Gulf Cup wins, 4th place at Confed Cup 1999.
If anything, Saudi Arabia had two Golden Generations – 1989 – 1998, followed by 1998 – 2007. First one involved players like Yousuf Thunayan, Majed Abdullah, Fahed Al Mehallel, Saeed Al Owairan, Khalid Al Muwalid. Once they retired, other players such as Mohammed Al Shalhoub, Yasser Al Qahtani, Talal Al Meshal, Hamad Al Montashari took over. Players like Sami Al Jaber, Mohammed Al Daeya and Hussein Suleimani lasted both periods. Great players who succeeded despite numerous coaching changes and a perceived lack of focus in that regard.
Players moving to Europe does not necessarily make for a successful national team. At least not in Asia. Iraq’s Golden Generation of the 2000’s had little success in the continent – 1 player in their Asian Cup winning squad of 2007 played in Cyprus. Likewise, Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup with a largely domestically based squad in comparison to the smorgasbord of European-based players called up for previous failed campaigns. (with a domestic league suffering from the same issues mentioned in the above article).
I agree that it is important to nurture youth properly – check out Germany’s 2009 UEFA youth championship winning side compared to their 2014 World Cup winning side. Compare that to England’s at the 2009 tournament. Keeping a talented youth side together and moving them through the international levels can make a huge difference. UAE won the 2008 under 19 AFC Championship, then qualified for the 2012 London Olympics then went on a 20+ game unbeaten run. All using the same group of players transitioning from youth to senior level under the same coach who also followed the team – Mahdi Ali.
It’s true that The Golden Generation has ceased to exist. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will never be such generation, or that their haven’t been any players that could have carried the torch moving forward once the old guard had stepped out. The beauty of that generation was that they were adaptable to whatever the game threw at them. Be it administrative or on the pitch.
Saudi had an established team from the mid-80’s. The likes of Saleh Khalifa, Mohesen Al Jamaan, along with Majed had one of the best attacking sides in Asia, with a defence that wasn’t too shabby either. That side won the 84 Asian Cup. The main issue about this current generation is that there seems to be a loss of bite and confidence that once resonated across the Saudi national team. The current crop seem to give up once they see their opponents having a go at them. Which brings me to my next point.
It’s true that playing in Europe is not a requirement for a better national team, but fact to the matter is that playing in Europe does teach players certain aspects of the game – especially physical – that are absent in the domestic league. The fitness training alone will prove to be beneficial, as most Saudi players don’t have the fitness to carry on an entire 90 minutes. I’m not saying that success depends alone on playing in Europe, but I’m pretty sure that the stars of Japan from Nakata in the late 90’s all the way to Kagawa and Honda today have improved whilst playing in Europe, which in turn helped their national team.
Good points though, Dariush.
Great Article Othman , really enjoyed it … I really see the 1994 World cup as the worst thing ever to happen to Saudi football … it started to become an excuse every time we went through a bad spell ..we would bring that up … the problem in Saudi football is that we have to much pride , we cant accept criticism or blame , and therefore we cant improve ..we never had nor have any long-term plan on improving ..just sustaining ..compare our national team to Oman, Bahrain , Jordan , Uzbekistan … those teams have come along way since around 10-15 years ago compared to us … I doubt we can ever qualify to the World cup in the future if we dont have players moving to europe … Australia , South Korea , Japan , and either Iran or Uzbekistan will always fight it out , though Iran have much less players in europe and Uzbekistan maybe even less…they have players playing outside their country in asia and learning the true meaning of professionalism …
A couple of years ago i was chatting with a Foreign player playing at a Riyadh-based club , and he told me ” In Saudi , there is only one club which is run fairly well , 2-3 others who are so-so … the others are just shambles ..”
Great point about fitness levels. This was Carlos Queiroz’s main point going into this World Cup. His training camps focused on getting domestic players in Iran running 10-11km per game, compared to the 5-6km they were used to in the Iran Pro League. It worked successfully – we went toe to toe with Argentina and Nigeria with our backs against the wall and never struggled for fitness. Unremarkable domestic players such as Pooladi and Hajsafi impressed hugely with their drive and determination. Hopefully other Middle Eastern teams can learn from Queiroz and adapt rigorous short term fitness programs to get them up to speed.
I see a lot of parallels between Iranian – Saudi football with regards to their golden generation dying out – we had a dire period between 2006 – 2013. Queiroz has almost single-handedly reversed this, and hopefully Saudi will get lucky with their next managerial appointment with a long term approach.