West News Wire: Saudi Arabian football is currently experiencing one of its most prosperous periods, with the historic World Cup victory over Argentina, the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by Al-Nassr FC, and rival Al-Hilal FC reaching the Club World Cup final among its many achievements.
Away from the spotlight, there have been other victories at the young level. The Green Falcons’ victory in the U-23 Asian Cup of the Asian Football Confederation last year suggests a bright future for the national squad.
It’s difficult not to get caught up in the enthusiasm and frenzy surrounding Saudi football right now, especially with officials guaranteeing that more famous players will follow Ronaldo to the domestic league.
But administrators in the country must strike a delicate balance to prevent the influx of foreign players into the Saudi Premier League from impeding the development of local talent and, ultimately, the national squad (SPL).
To raise the level of professionalism and quality of the domestic game, the SPL has recently loosened the restrictions on the amount of foreign players that are permitted.
Only four were allowed for each team as recently as the 2016–17 season, and foreign goalkeeper signings were prohibited. This quota was gradually raised over the ensuing years, and eight foreign players including goalkeepers are currently permitted per squad.
The development of indigenous talent takes a second seat to the immediate need of winning games in a league full of foreign managers wanting fast success, which results in almost all clubs using the whole allotted quota.
But, there are valid concerns about whether this initiative, which definitely raises the bar for domestic competition, is detrimental to the goal of fostering Saudi talent at home.
A worrying development at Al-Nassr recently, according to John Duerden, a senior writer on Asian football and ardent SPL follower, underlines the difficulty many local players endure.
“Most teams employ foreign goalkeepers, he noted, and it was noteworthy that [Nawaf] al-Aqidi, who had performed admirably for the [Saudi] national team at the Gulf Cup, was not given an opportunity due to the injury to Al-[Colombian Nassr’s goalkeeper David] Ospina. Instead, a rapid draft of an Argentine on loan was made “He disclosed to news reporters.
A MEE review of the statistics from the Saudi Arabian team that won the U-23 Asian Cup in 2022 paints another unsettling image for the athletes in that generation. The majority of them have participated in fewer than 10 league games so far this year.
In addition, a recent analysis from the CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland examined information from 60 leagues worldwide to determine the proportion of players’ available match minutes under 21 years of age from January 2021 to March 2022.
The United Arab Emirates Pro League (9.3%%), the second-division Japanese League (5.6%), and Australia’s A-League (11.1% each) were the top three leagues in Asia.
Saudi Arabia came in bottom out of all 60 countries, scoring only 1.6 percent.
In general, Duerden added, “the ideal solution is to actually invest in youth development and empower the grassroots.”
“There is no quick fix for that. It requires persistence and time. As we have seen at many Asian youth levels, Saudi Arabia does generate talented young players, and this needs to be strengthened.”
Expert on Middle Eastern football Wael Jabir contends that, despite the fact that allowing eight international players per team surely deters local potential, it nevertheless fosters competitiveness within each side.
He told MEE that “the few players who force their way into the starting lineup, especially at top clubs, will be more competitive against international quality, which should serve the national team well.”
In addition, we’ll see Saudi internationals and members of the national team on the outskirts transfer to lower-level SPL or perhaps first division clubs in search of regular games, which should improve the caliber of such organizations.
The recent career of national team attacker Firas al-Buraikan serves as an example of the validity of Jabir’s reasoning.
Up until the 2021-22 season he was on the books of Al-Nassr, a promising young talent struggling for game time and competing against international stars like Morocco’s Abderrazak Hamdallah, scoring just four goals in 28 games across four seasons.
In search of more regular game time, he opted to leave the Riyadh giants for the humbler surrounds of Al-Fateh FC. It is a move that has paid dividends.
In the 18 months since, he has played 43 games and scored 19 goals, establishing himself as the leading Saudi scorer in the league over that period.
“Plenty of leagues thrive with no limits on foreign players,” Duerden said.
“The question is finding a balance which ensures that foreign players brought in are better than locals as much as possible.
The question of Saudi talent playing overseas remains the elephant in the room given the dearth of Saudi players looking to take their talents to Europe, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The question of whether the Saudi authorities prioritize making money over developing local talent is still there.