Across 10 days in May, Slovenia’s Damir Skomina went from refereeing a Champions League semifinal at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium to officiating in front of 409 fans in Saudi Arabia’s top division.
The Saudi Pro League relegation decider between Najran and Al-Raed was one of 22 top-flight matches last season marshaled by leading European referees, appointed at clubs’ request. And Saudi Arabia’s refereeing boss Howard Webb faces a tough task to convince the Kingdom’s fanatical supporters that local officials are up to the job.
The appointment of Webb in August 2015 is part of a push to re-establish three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia among the continent’s football elite following a sustained decline at both club and international level.
“The first thing I recognized was the passion everyone has for football. It seems to be almost an obsession, which dominates life here, particularly for young men,” said the UK-born Webb.
Webb, who is director of refereeing at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, has vast experience in the field, having refereed both the 2010 World Cup and Champions League finals.
‘Fans never forgive the referee’
Riyadh and Jeddah clubs have historically dominated Saudi Arabia’s league, claiming 37 of 40 titles between them. Local derbies play to crowds that can top 60,000 and clubs often doubt local referees can handle such a frenzied atmosphere. As a result, they can request foreign referees for up to five of their 13 home league fixtures each season.
“Fans in general don’t appreciate referees can make mistakes because they are human,” said Yasser Al-Misehal, chief executive of the fiercely competitive Saudi Professional League, which has been won by six different clubs in the past eight seasons.
“A striker can miss a chance and fans would forgive the player because they love them. They never forgive the referee. Some immediately think this referee made the mistake intentionally. The media in some cases accuse the referees of not being able to handle pressure. Sometimes referees do make bad mistakes, especially when the stadium is full.”
Last season’s foreign officials included three of the last four Champions League final referees.
Webb, who is pushing to cut the number of matches foreigners officiate, says the reliance on overseas refs comes at the expense of local talent.
“It does stunt our guys because they’re not exposed to the biggest games in Saudi,” he told Arab News.
“Here, it seems to be that referees no matter what happens are newsworthy and with that comes some pressure.
“When a mistake is made by a local guy, people here want to talk about it, draw conclusions as to why that mistake is made. When the same mistake is made by an international guy they just put down it to human error.”
Webb was technical director for England’s professional refereeing body before accepting a three-year contract to oversee the Saudi equivalent. His task is to ensure Saudi referees receive the best training.
“We’re using various analysis systems to make sure we track the performance of our guys,” said Webb, who spends about 12 days a month in Saudi Arabia and oversees referee appointments.
“Some of it comes down to a feeling as well — just as a football manager will get a good feeling about a player, I might get a good feeling about a certain referee’s ability.”
Only 18 Saudi referees took charge of top-flight games last season, but the kingdom has more than 1,000 referees officiating at all levels.
“I’ve got to make sure we’ve got people in place who can recognize talent further down, help with mentoring and the instructing of those people and bring them through so they’re equipped to deal with the top league,” said Webb.
One means to ease the pressure on referees is to announce match officials only a few days beforehand, rather than weeks in advance as previously.
“Over the course of the season we’ve seen the numbers of mistakes reduce and some of that is down to the instructions I’ve given,” said Webb, who described Saudi referees’ knowledge of football laws as equal to that of their European counterparts.
“There’s always that balance between managing situations and being consistent because whenever you ask a referee to manage a situation you’re asking him to use his own interpretation of what’s happening … to use some flexibility and not be rigid. The same situation in the first minute or the 61st minute can be dealt with quite differently.”
The league aims to introduce full-time referees, starting with between three and five officials.
“In terms of attitude, they’re professional anyway,” said Webb. “It’s just trying to match that attitude with their status.”
Saudi’s football authorities hope better refereeing will accelerate the renaissance of both the domestic game and the national team, which qualified for four successive World Cup finals from 1994 to 2006, but then entered a prolonged malaise.
From being ranked 21st in the world in 2004, the Kingdom’s national football team slumped to an all-time low of 126th in 2012, although a steady improvement has lifted the “Green Falcons” to 54th and the fifth-best in Asia behind Iran, South Korea, Japan and Australia.
The national team are through to the final group stage of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, lying joint-top after five matches although only a point separates them, Japan, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. First and second qualify, while third enters a lengthy play-off process.
Money rules in football and Saudi’s top division is getting richer. About a decade ago its television deal was worth SR 20 million ($5.33 million) per season; the current contract, which runs to 2023, nets SR 360 million annually. That’s chump change when compared with Europe’s leading leagues, but is among the best in Asia.
“We’re working hard to improve the level of the Saudi league,” said Misehal, whose other initiatives include extending online ticketing to between four and six other stadiums. Currently, this is only available at Jeddah’s $560 million King Abdullah Sports City stadium.
Per season, clubs’ individual sponsorship deals also net about SR 650 million and the league sponsors pay a further SR 140 million.
This wealth hasn’t yet transferred into higher achievement on the pitch — Saudi clubs’ performance in the Asian Champions League (ACL) this year was their worst since the continent’s most prestigious club competition expanded to 32 teams in 2009.
Historically, however, only Japan and South Korea have a more illustrious ACL pedigree and Saudi’s aim is to become one of the world’s top 20 leagues.
“I can see them achieving that,” said Webb. “It’s an attacking style of football, quite open… entertaining games. It’s not cagey, defensive-minded football, which is good for spectators and the TV audience.”