LONDON: The news that Villarreal have named Salem Al-Dawsari in their Europa League squad to face Lyon on Thursday is interesting.
If the Saudi Arabia international gets some serious minutes on the pitch then a few opinions in the two countries over their new collaboration may change. If not, questions will persist.
The talented winger was one of nine Saudi Arabian players to join Spanish clubs last month. Included in the nonet were some of the top talents in the Middle East, such as Fahad Al-Muwallad, now with Levante, and new Leganes player Yahia Al-Shehri. The rest of the arrivals have gone to other teams in the first and second tiers.
It is the brainchild of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and La Liga. The benefits for both parties seemed clear: Some of the top players in the Middle East get some much-needed international experience with the World Cup just four months away, while La Liga got more fans in Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, a sponsorship deal or two. The size of the market is clear. Villarreal set up an Arabic Twitter account after Al-Dawsari signed and it already boasts nearly 43,000 followers. A video of him juggling a ball attracted 420,000 views.
Yet when Leganes announced the signing of Saudi Arabia international Al-Shehri, it was not only coach Asier Garitano who admitted to know nothing of the players, fans were in the same position. They took to Google.
“Soon we knew that he was one of the best players in Saudi Arabia and that he has even been on the cover of the FIFA video game,” Daniel Gonzalez told Arab News. “We fully respect any player who signs the club and if Yahia works as hard as he can and gives everything for the shirt, then he will be respected and loved by all.”
Spanish eyebrows are still raised high while expectations that there will be any on-pitch action are low. Al-Muwallad and Al-Dawsari are yet to even make Levante’s and Villarreal’s matchday squad, leading to many Saudi Arabia football fans bombarding the clubs’ Twitter accounts with messages of complaint every time their squads are announced.
“The general reaction has been eyes rolling and cynicism, if I’m being honest,” Joseph Sexton, a Spanish football writer with Marca, told Arab News. “I doubt those headed to top flight sides will see much, if any action. However, we are talking about international players bound for the World Cup, so it’s possible at struggling Levante they may call on theirs … but I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Levante fans are particularly disappointed not to have seen the silky skills of Al-Muwallad, the talented Al Ittihad winger, after Fernando Sanz, the director of La Liga in the Middle East and North Africa, labeled him “the Cristiano or Messi of Saudi Arabia.”
“It is OK for players to come and not to play if they are young and we can develop them into better players for the future,” Sergio Lopez, a Levante fan, said. “The problem here is that they are here just for a few months. It is not a signing for the future, it is not a signing for now, so what is the signing for? The only realistic answer then it is that it is a signing that is made for non-football reasons.”
Likewise Gonzalez and the Leganes fans are ready to welcome their new Saudi star, Al-Shehri, but wonder if they will have a chance to do so.
“Our doubts are focused on the quality differences that may exist between the Saudi league and the Spanish league,” Gonzalez said. “We also believe that the economic aspect has weighed a lot in the decision to sign Yahia. It seems only a good deal for the compensation that we will receive in terms of sponsorship.”
The Spanish Players’ Union agrees. “This new business model prioritizes the economic aspect over the sporting one, sacrificing the essence of this sport and favoring business over the promotion and development of our footballers,” it said in a statement.
La Liga may be looking to boost its presence and popularity in the Middle East but even if it cannot offer playing time in return, there are other benefits to be had for the Saudi pioneers, according to Sexton.
“The great success of Spanish sides — well beyond the big three — has been built on developing talent, working within your constraints, and the massive reservoir of coaching talent at every level. If the players can overcome the linguistic and cultural aspects, they could really learn a thing or two.”
Lee Chun-soo is a former South Korea international who spent time in the previous decade with Real Sociedad and Numancia. He agrees that there is much to absorb.
“Even when you do not play, you can learn so much in Spain,” said Lee. “There is a different way of playing and the standards are very high. If you make the effort then you will get much out of it but you have to work hard even if you are not playing.”