It seems that barely a week goes by without the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee adding yet another sporting federation to its rapidly expanding portfolio.
The latest sport to be given a major boost is field hockey, and leading the campaign to raise awareness about it is Mohammed Al-Mandeel, president of the Saudi Hockey Federation.
“I have (a) passion for different areas in sport so I became Saudi Hockey Federation president for many reasons,” he told Arab News at a training camp set up by the body. “One of them is that I used to play this game when I was a student, and inshallah I’m planning to transfer my knowledge here to make it one of the more popular sports (in Saudi Arabia).”
Al-Mandeel graduated with a degree in telecommunications engineering from Cranfield University in the UK, and assumed his role as head of the federation at the start of 2020, though official affiliation to the Asian Hockey Federation did not come until 2021.
“Field hockey is one of the biggest, oldest historical sports in the world, and also a major Olympic sport,” he said, before highlighting its history including that 4000-year-old inscriptions from ancient Egypt seem to depict a sport similar to hockey.
“When you have a new thing in society there will be resistance, so part of our strategy is to raise awareness, to let people know about this sport,” he said. “Football, basketball and volleyball all have an established audience, but hockey is considered a new challenge, and for people who like to try something new our federation is setting up new training programs for beginners who want to try this sport.”
It is not only in Europe and Southeast Asia that hockey is popular, it already has a following in several Middle Eastern countries.
“The top Arab country in this sport is Egypt while in the Gulf it’s Oman. They have a lot of good players, and we already have partnerships with them to have their knowledge transferred here to Saudi,” Al-Mandeel said.
A strategy to raise the profile of the game is already in place.
“We have different channels (to promote hockey),” said Al-Mandeel. “In digital media, we have Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter and we have our official website. And through small pop-up events, we are spreading new ideas to the people.”
The federation’s website is already open for people wishing to register for training programs. Al-Mandeel’s long-term ambitions are far more lofty.
“My (aim) is to have a Saudi team in the top three in the Olympics,” he said.
A member of the federation’s board of directors, Abdullah Sulaiman Al-Sayari, laid out the strategy to attract youngsters to hockey in a country were three or four major sports attract most of the attention.
“We made a plan to reach out to schools (by) nominating three schools in Riyadh, three in Jeddah and three in the Eastern region, and started working with them to transform these schools into hockey academies for their students or other children in the area,” said Al-Sayari.
“So far we are working with Al-Arkam Schools in Riyadh, with a huge number of students. We want to invest in kids, as it’s a new game and it’s hard to attract new players as they have other hobbies an interests in different sports,” he said. “But we are allowing them to attend training sessions of some big clubs to let them know that they can reach their level and compete.”
Al-Sayari was also keen to highlight the support of the government in promoting the sport.
“We faced a lot of challenges in this sport, such as the availability of suitable playgrounds, availability of suitable tools, and coaches (and) referees,” he said. “To be honest, the number is too small but we are currently working on that. We are also working on many championships, especially at school level, which will have one very soon.”
Al-Sayari also revealed that the federation is working on establishing a Gulf region championship in December 2022, having already reached out to willing neighboring countries. They are currently working on a location and budget, he said.
But growing the game and increasing the number of participants is a long-term project with plenty of challenges for Al-Sayari and his colleagues.
“We are trying our best to overcome these obstacles,” he said. “However, taking into consideration that the federation is new and hasn’t even completed one year yet, we have established five championships in which four to five teams have participated from different regions in the Kingdom.”
“The game has started to grow, and we also have a female team now and we are working on expanding it,” Al-Sayari added. “As for the men’s teams, we have already reached the maximum number of players we planned for, but the challenge here is finding suitable coaches to support coach Ahmed Abdo (technical director of the federation).”
“Currently we have four other assistant coaches who are being trained and also working on training some teachers in the schools to become coaches in the future. We are trying our best to overcome all of these obstacles and hoping by the end of this year to reach at least 40 to 50 percent of our plan.”
Participation is coming from unexpected sources.
Adwa Al-Hunaidi and her daughter Meshael have been taking part in the sessions since they discovered they were open to females.
“Meshael initiated the idea of joining the field hockey program because she was the one who was interested,” said Adwa.
“To start with, what we had in mind when we first came was to enroll my son Yousef, that’s when we found out that girls can join too. And the coach made it clear to us that mothers (and) adults can join too,” said Adwa.
She said they were really “excited” and now all three of them have joined up. “We really loved the idea since we have always been fond of sports.”