There were plenty of reasons to be pleased with Saudi Arabia’s successful qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup.
These include winning the group above Japan and Australia, the fact that two local strikers Saleh Al-Shehri and Firas Al-Buraikan finished in the top two places for goals scored in the third round, and the way that the team have developed since coach Herve Renard arrived in 2019.
One more reason is just how impressive Salem Al-Dawsari has been. The winger was a standout all the way along the road to Qatar. It’s not just when he pulls on his country’s famous green shirt that it happens either, the 30-year-old claimed the Best Player award as Al-Hilal won the 2021 Asian Champions League. He was also outstanding when Al-Hilal won Saudi Arabian title number 17.
Most would agree that Al-Dawsari was the best Asian player in Asia in 2021. Chinese media giant Titan Sports ranked the star fourth in their annual Best Footballer in Asia award last year, behind only European-based stars Son Heung-min of South Korea and Iran’s deadly duo Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, who play for FC Porto and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. Had the Asian Football Confederation not canceled their annual award then it is likely that the Saudi Arabian international would have been named Asian Player of the Year.
It is not a surprise then that there is interest from Europe. It is also not a surprise that Al-Hilal don’t want to lose their star. It is natural and has been the case in much of West Asia for some time. Local talents emerge but their clubs are reluctant to let them go. Over in the eastern side of the continent in countries like South Korea, Japan and China, a big star attracting even a hint of European interest immediately gets people and the media excited. Clubs there generally are happy to let their best players head to the best leagues in the world and see it as good for the country’s and player’s development. Not only that, it can be hard to attract top young talent in the first place if they think that a possible route to Europe will be blocked.
I remember talking to UAE star Ismail Matar in 2015 after he finished training with Al-Wahda. The man who was named the most-valuable player of the 2003 U-20 World Cup had been linked to Europe for much of his career and had been told by all manner of coaches, agents and journalists that he should go, but never did. By the time we met in Abu Dhabi, such links were a thing of the past. He told me that he had wanted to try his luck but his club just wouldn’t let him go. It would have been fascinating to see what he could have done on and off the pitch in Europe.
Al-Hilal see Al-Dawsari in a similar light and just last December handed him a new four-year contract which is reported to be worth around $3.5 million (SR13 million) a year. That’s a lucrative deal anywhere in the world and it shows just how the player, who has been with the Riyadh club since 2011, is viewed. Foreign stars come and go in football but to have such a player for such a long time, and one that is in the form of his life, is hugely important. He is a talisman.
Al-Dawsari was one of several Saudi Arabian players who went to Spain back in 2018 and impressed more than most with Villarreal and actually made a league appearance against Real Madrid. Soon after he was scoring the winning goal in a World Cup game against Egypt. He has since gone from strength to strength.
That is why there are reports and rumors of interest from the same Spanish club, as well as Almeria, with apparently more in the mix. The important point is that any move gives Al-Dawsari a good chance of regular playing time. There is no point going to Villarreal, who have just appeared in the semifinal of the UEFA Champions League, and never getting a game.
Such a move may be possible for a youngster who has time on his side and would benefit from the experience and opportunity but for a 30-year-old senior international, it is not the right option. A move to Europe would be great for the player but it has to be for the right reasons to the right club and the right coach.
There is something bigger at play too. At some point Saudi Arabia will have stars in the big leagues of Europe, it is only a matter of time. That is what needs to happen because the top European leagues still represent the pinnacle of the club game and it is where the country’s best should test themselves.
At some point, there needs to be a pioneer who shows people overseas and his colleagues at home that it can be done and that pioneer could be Al-Dawsari. The sooner it happens the better. If an offer comes and it is one that provides genuine opportunity to play, and the man himself has the desire to try his luck abroad, then Al-Hilal should do the rest of football in Saudi Arabia, as well as much of West Asia, a big favor and let their star go.