Are Saudi fans turning from local league to Europe?

Saudi Arabia's football fans are reportedly watching and following European football in increasing numbers. “Maybe, before people couldn’t watch foreign football leagues but now all European leagues are aired live via satellite. People know that the best enjoyment lies in watching European football,” said Saudi ART channel football commentator, Madani Rahimi. He told Samir Al-Saadi and Razan Baker of Arab News that football games in the Kingdom have become somewhat dull and stadiums are no longer as bright and colourful as they used to be. “The press has a big hand in it too ... There have been a lot of rumours which have affected players and caused problems and tension between players and their clubs. This is something that shows during matches,” he said.

According to unnamed experts quoted by Al-Saadi and Baker, there is also a problem with Saudi Arabian clubs overpaying players to ensure they stay with their respective clubs and are not poached by rival teams.

Another aspect of the growing popularity of European leagues over local ones, they observed, is is the growing popularity of fantasy football leagues, where young internet-savvy Saudis create imaginary teams based on real players and then compete with each other online. "Thousands of Saudis play fantasy football on the UEFA internet site. In order to play fantasy football, fans need to be able to closely follow media coverage of teams and the performance of players — the kind of deep analysis that is unavailable for local Saudi teams. Fantasy football also acts as a kind of promotional mechanism for leagues, helping their popularity among sports-crazy people," they wrote.

"Perhaps part of the reason for the popularity of foreign football in the Kingdom," they added, "is the fact that European matches are pay-per-view, causing fans to venture out to local cafes to watch matches. Meanwhile, Saudi teams restrict their play to local network television. The carnival-like enthusiasm of fans that watch European football is clearly demonstrative of the growing trend among Saudi fans, who are embracing foreign football."

Sami Al-Jaber, captain of the Saudi national team and Al-Hilal football club, broke ground in August 2000 when he spent five months on loan to Wolverhampton Wanderers becoming the first Saudi player to feature in professional English football. However, many football fans complain that other Arab countries that spend much less on football have managed to export players to European clubs. "In fact," Al-Saadi and Baker continued, "many Saudi fans, who spoke to Arab News, said that they felt that the Kingdom would be one of the primary exporters of football players from among all of the GCC countries. But the Saudi league has again failed to succeed, the only GCC [Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council] national playing in Europe is Oman’s international goalkeeper, Ali Al-Habsi, who plays in the English Premier League for Bolton Wanderers."

In press interviews, Al-Habsi said his dream came true after playing for three years for Lyn in Norway. After only three weeks’ training with Bolton, he said, training in England is more intense than at Lyn. “I can say that the training is 70 percent different from what I was used to,” he said. Al-Saadi and Baker commented: "It does seem that local Saudi players do not train intensely enough, something that becomes visible when Saudi players compete on an international level. Saudi players want stardom but do not want to achieve it through hard work."