Behind the ambition, the astronomical transfer fees, and the star power of the men’s game, in recent years another transformation has been quietly taking place in Saudi Arabian football.
While the headlines have been about Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Neymar, Malcom, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, the Kingdom has been investing in women’s football by establishing the Women’s Premier League and First Division League.
And here too, there are big names getting on board including former Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre and former West Ham striker Nor Mustafa. Other experienced campaigners have been brought in which includes Kelly Lindsey, the former US international, who manages Al-Ittihad’s female team.
This is a part of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation’s initiative to strengthen the women’s game. Indeed in 2022, Saudi Arabia announced its intention to bid for the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. With the country implementing its national Vision 2030, football has a huge part to play.
A glimpse into this revolution and evolution can be found at Al-Ittihad in the form of goalkeeping coach Dan Smith who arrived in Jeddah from England’s Bristol City last summer. Smith believes this burgeoning league has the potential to be the best and biggest in the world.
“It’s amazing to be a part of this club,” he told Arab News. “You really feel wanted, and you feel the connection between the players and the supporters and the community.”
Ten rounds into the second season of the Women’s Premier League, Al-Ittihad are in fourth place.
The symbiotic relationship between the team and the passionate fan base creates an atmosphere that Smith considers refreshing.
“Any time that we get the fans to the games, you know, they bring the drums, they bring the songs, they bring the noise,” he added. “It’s very, very different to what we’ve experienced before in England.”
The women’s game, Smith acknowledges, is growing in popularity but there are challenges.
“There’s been a lack of coaching over the past few years, especially for goalkeepers,” he said. This did not mean starting from scratch but looking at refining techniques in handling, footwork and overall skills, he added.
Smith believes these challenges are opportunities for growth.
“It’s been brilliant in terms of what it has done for my coaching, my patience,” said Smith. “And it’s reinforced the stuff that maybe, for a few years, I’ve not necessarily had to focus on as much.”
Smith has had to deal with other challenges as a foreign coach in Saudi Arabia.
“That language barrier is something different, but we’re lucky to have people, for example our goalkeepers when it comes to my work with the club, who can translate. I’ve had to learn a bit of Arabic along the way, so it’s been good.”
The coaching side has been fulfilling, he said. “When it comes to working alongside the players, it’s been amazing. They’re so eager to learn, eager to improve.”
He is adamant that the game in Saudi Arabia is being developed from the grassroots level.
“The project as a whole is one that is so, so exciting to be involved in,” Smith stressed. “The investment not only brings foreign staff and players but also continues into the school systems, encouraging young girls to play football from a young age.”
“People just see the money and think they’re just investing it into the first team or into staff,” said Smith. “But no, there’s a plan in place, there’s a strategy in place by the federation to get women’s football propelled onto a bigger stage."
“That’s another reason why the project as a whole is one that is so exciting to be involved in,” he added. “Of course, it’s going to take time, a hundred percent, but with more investment and the more people coming into the right roles, this project for women’s football in Saudi is only going one way. And that is up.”
Smith said there was still a great deal of misconceptions about Saudi Arabia’s transformation.
“Unless you are here, I don’t think you can speak with an educated view about it, to be honest. It is completely different.” He added that it was “completely different to what you’ve been reading about or seeing online.”
All of this has contributed to what he describes as an “amazing first eight months in the country.”
He said the women’s game had gained a great deal from the recently concluded West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship which was held in the country, even though Saudi Arabia lost their three group games.
“The women’s team have just played their first international tournament. They’ll gain so much experience and knowledge from that, which they can then use to push on in future years.”
The future holds much promise, which includes the potential hosting of the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.
“That again is something that can grow the audience massively.”
With club games being broadcast, this was creating interest among females. “There’s the opportunity for young girls in this country to see what they could become,” said Smith. “They can dream it, and they can believe.”