Can Saudi Football Rise Again?

Watching Saudi Arabia play against Yemen in the Gulf Cup of Nations yesterday, Saudi fans went through a sea of fluctuating emotions: anxiety, elation, frustration and finally relief as their team snatched a 2-0 victory over an opponent classified as the weakest in the competition. This should have been a game where Saudis could cruise to an easy win, but for the thousands of spectators who watched it did not feel easy at all. Saudi Arabia now must defeat Kuwait in their upcoming game Saturday if they want to advance to the next round in the tournament.

Saudi football has seen better days. Most people still fondly remember when the national team was at the top of Asian football, winning the Asian Cup in 1984, 1988 and 1996. When the team did not win the cup, it came runner up in 1992, 2000 and 2007. In 1994, they qualified to the FIFA World Cup for the first time and performed excellently in the competition that took place in the United States, reaching the second round before losing to Sweden who ended fourth in the tournament. And who can forget the marvelous goal scored by midfielder Saeed Al Owairan against Belgium?

The Green Falcons have made it to the next three World Cups in 1998, 2002 and 2006. But since the middle of the last decade, Saudi football has been going into a steady and painful decline. The team has failed to qualify to the last World Cup as well as the next one. In the last Asian Cup that took place in neighboring Qatar in 2011, Saudi Arabia finished last in their group, losing all three games and scoring only one goal.

Writing for Abu Dhabi-based The National, Osman Samiuddin says “it is difficult to know in such an impenetrable culture exactly what has gone wrong.” But he points out to one factor, which is how frequently Saudi Arabia change managers. By his count, the Saudi team has gone through 32 managers between 1984 to 2006. For comparison, Germany has had only six managers over the same period.

The quick changes in the manager position is an indication of the erratic style of administration by Saudi football officials. This should not be surprising because most top Saudi football officials had no background in football. The top position at the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) since the 1971 has been filled by members of the royal family. First Prince Faisal bin Fahad, then his brother Prince Sultan and later Prince Nawaf, the son of Faisal.

The era of Faisal, who passed away in 1999, is often considered the golden era of Saudi football. Son of the late King Fahad, he was given wide powers and an open budget to develop sports in the country after he was appointed President of Youth Welfare in 1975. The presidency reportedly “spent like crazy” on massive infrastructure projects after he took over. Steffen Hertog, who wrote a book about Saudi Arabia’s political economy, estimates that budgeted expenditures under Faisal has exploded from SR 134 million in 1975 to almost SR 3 billion annually in the early 1980s.

That investment paid off. Saudi Arabia won the U-17 World Cup in Scotland in 1989. In the same year, Saudi Arabia hosted the FIFA World Youth Championship, with the newly opened King Fahad Stadium in the capital Riyadh serving as stage for the opening and the final. That stadium remained as the last major achievement in Saudi sports infrastructure for many years. Despite the rapid growth in population, the country did not build any big stadiums between 1989 and 2012. Late last year, construction has begun in the new King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.

However, the kind of spending witnessed in the 1980s was no longer affordable after the Gulf War. Saudi football made some great results in the 1990s based on the strong foundation laid out earlier, but the success was difficult to sustain as the growth of the young population strained the resources that have become scarce. With less resources and poor management at the upper echelons of the Youth Welfare Presidency and SAFF, Saudi footbal was destined to descend down a spiral of repeated failures in recent years.

Football is the most popular game in the country and fans took the failure very hard. Pressure from frustrated fans forced Prince Nawaf bin Faisal to resign last year as head of SAFF after Saudi Arabia was knocked out of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers on the hands of new comers to Asian football Australia. As James M. Dorsey noted on his Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, Nawaf’s resignation was notable for two reasons:

His resignation broke the mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team’s failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya brutally punishing players.

This is true, but Dorsey overlooks one more reason that forced the resignation and led to SAFF holding election for the first time to choose a president. Nawaf’s ouster and holding election were inevitable because FIFA insists that national football federations must be independent from governments. Few years ago FIFA suspended Kuwait from international football because its government “has continued to interfere” in the affairs of the Kuwaiti football federation.

SAFF held its first election to choose a president in December 2012. The winner was Ahmed Eid, a former goalkeeper for Jeddah-based al-Ahli club who is considered a reformer. He is also seen as a supporter of women sports, a controversial issue in the conservative kingdom. “He is probably the single most important male ally that Saudi female athletes have to get a women’s football team up and running,” Sabria S. Jawhar wrote in Arab News.

Looking at the situation of Saudi football today, it is clear that Eid faces an uphill battle. From the privatization of clubs controlled by royal family members to regaining the past glory of the national team, the list of challenges seems daunting and the expectations of fans are great. Footballers often say that to win games you need hard work as well as some luck. To succeed, Eid will need a whole lot of both.