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The big plan: Learning from loaning Saudi

Saudi Arabia celebrate making it to next year’s World Cup. It is hoped several of the players get to play in Europe before the tournament in Russia. (AP)
DUBAI: News broke on Sunday about a major plan by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) to send national team players to spend the second half of the season on loan at various European clubs ahead of the Green Falcons’ participation in next year’s World Cup in Russia.
The fine print reveals that the federation along with its government umbrella, the General Sport Authority, are in the process of signing agreements with clubs and leagues across Europe to allow Saudi players the opportunity to test themselves against stronger opponents, week in, week out in the old continent. The first of those agreements was signed with Spain’s La Liga last week.
The ambitious plan is aimed at delivering improved performances in Russia compared to the team’s last three appearances on the global stage, which all ended at the group stage with no wins recorded. The nadir of that run came in 2002 when they were thrashed 8-0 by eventual runners-up Germany.
Eight years earlier, Saudi Arabia had made an impressive World Cup debut, beating Belgium 1-0 courtesy of Saeed Al-Owairan’s iconic solo effort. They went on to reach the knockout stage before leaving the USA with their heads held high after a 3-1 defeat against would-be bronze-medalists Sweden.
The SAFF’s determination to transform the 32-million-people-strong nation into a football powerhouse has seen them take big steps over the past few months; they set up a national scouting committee consisting of legendary former players to roam the country in pursuit of the next generation of top talents.
The scouts’ eyes were also cast on the previously untapped Saudi-born expat players, a key demographic in a country with 12 million expats and many others who were born in the Kingdom before moving on elsewhere.
Former England U-17 midfielder Mukhtar Ali is one of those who were born in Saudi Arabia. Ali’s parents hail from Somalia, but they immigrated to the UK via the Kingdom where he was born. The midfielder has now answered the call of his birthplace and made his debut for the Green Falcons in a 5-1 win over Jamaica, contributing an assist in the process.
The plan to loan out players was met with some raised eyebrows and a certain amount of skepticism. For Saudi clubs’ fans, the main concern is the prospect of going the entire second half of the season without key players. AFC Champions League finalists Al-Hilal are set to be the worst affected as they could find themselves missing as many as 12 players.
The quality of the league could see a serious drop after January, and with it attendance figures. Questions have also been raised about whether a four-month loan spell with a European club could really benefit the players; to put this into perspective, even greats of the game such as Zinedine Zidane and Dennis Bergkamp needed as long as six months to adapt when moving to new leagues.
Those are the possible downsides of the plan; the positives are there for all to see. The new strategy opens the door for players from the Kingdom to make a name for themselves in European football. For all Saudi Arabia’s success on the Asian stage, its players never rivalled those from Japan, South Korea and Iran in moving to top European leagues.
Osama Hawsawi’s one-game spell at Anderlecht and Saeed Al-Muwallad’s controversial switch to Portuguese minnows Farense are hardly inspirational.
To that effect, sources revealed the SAFF has put a plan in place to ensure players only join clubs where they can get game time, rather than warming benches at bigger clubs.
Moreover, should the plan continue beyond the World Cup, it could pay dividends for the national team at the 2019 Asian Cup and for younger generations of Saudis aspiring to reach the glamorous heights of European football.