Saudi referee chief’s goal to relegate foreign officials

Howard Webb, second right, at a referee training camp held in the Czech Republic. (Photo courtesy of Howard Webb)
Updated 30 December 2016

Saudi referee chief’s goal to relegate foreign officials

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.”

Recognizing talent
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.”

Full-time refs
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 talks
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.”

BMW’s Antonio Felix da Costa crowned champion at Saudi Arabia's Ad Diriyah E-Prix

Updated 15 December 2018

BMW’s Antonio Felix da Costa crowned champion at Saudi Arabia's Ad Diriyah E-Prix

  • The Portuguese driver held on for victory ahead of Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Jerome d’Ambrosio in the Mahindra car
  • Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi had the best start on the grid

AD DIRIYAH, Riyadh: Antonio Felix da Costa praised his BMW garage but said there is still a lot of work for him and the team to do in this year’s Formula E season after winning the inaugural Ad Diriyah E-Prix on Saturday.

Da Costa was on pole from the beginning of the race and led away from the line, despite lining up at the front of the grid pointing toward the outside wall at a dusty and overcast Ad Diriyah circuit.

The Portuguese driver held on for victory ahead of Techeetah’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Jerome d’Ambrosio in the Mahindra car.

Da Costa told Arab News that the new “cooler and futuristic” Gen 2 car gives drivers more power, stability and grip, and that there was “a lot to take in” during the race.

“It is a new car, a new track, a new way of racing, (with) ‘Attack Mode’, and I got the ‘Fan Boost’ for the first time, so there were a lot of things to do and as a team and we executed so well, so I think that is why we won today because we were not the quickest car but we just had a perfect race.

“It is amazing, it’s been really tough and long months of work, but I am really happy with that,” da Costa added.

“We definitely have some work to do as the two Techeetah cars were really fast, and even with (Vergne’s) drive through penalty, he was right there at the end.

“But it’s a good start and we’ll keep working on that and try to keep it going,” he added.

When asked about BMW being involved in Formula E as a factory team for the first time, da Costa said: “It hasn’t been easy the last two years, but as I said it has been a lot work between Indianapolis with Andretti and Munich with BMW, it is great to see and I am so happy for everyone back in Munich.”

Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi had the best start on the grid after he blasted by Jose Maria Lopez around the outside of the first corner from third place.

The front four pulled away from the rest of the pack, before Vergne — who started the race in fifth — passed Lopez on lap one of what would become a 33-lap race, with his teammate Andre Lotterer also getting past the Geox Dragon driver.

As da Costa consolidated his lead, Vergne was closing in on Buemi, eventually passing him in a great move around the outside on lap nine. The Frenchman then set about reeling in da Costa, with the Portuguese offering fierce resistance.

Vergne was then forced to serve drive-through penalties – just after he had used his first “attack mode” – for going exceeding the permitted power while using his “re-gen,” which put paid to him getting a victory.

Reigning champion Vergne, while impressed with the venue, was philosophical after the race.

“I was really hungry for a victory today, but the qualifying in the morning did not go as planned.

“Unfortunately, it was a step down from where I wanted to be, I wanted to win this one. 

“I had a fantastic car, it was incredibly fast, but a big congratulations to the BMW guys and Antonio, it was a well-deserved victory.

“What I will take as a positive from this weekend is that we have a strong team and a very strong car and I am very motivated.

“Going forward, we just need to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that cost us the win today, but it’s a very encouraging first race and I’m looking forward to Marrakech now.”

On his drive through penalty, he said: “Yes, I had quite a few overtakes on the outside, on the inside, but it was a fun race, I honestly had a lot of fun. 

“I’m content with P2 today, and hoping to keep this package (on the car) and hopefully get some victories.”
Meanwhile, third-placed d’Ambrosio was delighted with his finish to the race.

“I am super happy, it was a great first race with Mahindra and a great start to the championship, I am lucky to be part of such a great team with some great people.

“I have come from two difficult years, so it’s great to start this new relationship with the team in this way. We worked very hard in the past few months to be ready, I think we were very fast but at the end of the race I didn’t have the confidence in the braking.

“But it makes a great to start to the season, with the podium and banking the points, and we’ll see what happens now.”

When asked about the new “attack mode” in Formula E, he said: “It is great, I actually wasn’t supposed to use it at that point of the race (when I did), but I had a good feeling and I saw Techeetah use it and start to build a gap, so I went for it and when the safety car came in I used it again.”