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DUBAI: Since Cristiano Ronaldo donned the famous yellow and blue colors of Al-Nassr in 2023, the Saudi Pro League has become a household name in world football. 

The following summer transfer window produced an influx of star players making their way to the SPL, lifting its profile even higher. Neymar, Karim Benzema, N’golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez are just a few of the names currently displaying their skills across the league. 

This year is likely to follow the same path as the league’s newfound popularity tempts more world-class footballers to the Kingdom. But while the SPL is prominently displayed, little is known — in the mainstream, anyway — about the youth setups for Saudis hoping to emulate the stars in the top tier or the national team. 

The leading clubs have their own extensive scouting networks and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation also has initiatives in place to develop the country’s finest young footballers. The Kingdom’s population and football’s popularity, however, mean many aspiring young footballers might look to forge a different path. 

One such avenue available to Saudi Arabia’s promising footballers is through Dubai-based Gulf United. The professional club, which is currently in the UAE First Division League and managed by ex-Swansea City and Wales star Neil Taylor, has an academy program designed to unearth the region’s best footballers. With strong connections to North American universities, Gulf United provides a stage for players aged 16 to 21 to earn overseas scholarships based on their skills. 

Although based in the UAE, the club recently held its first few academy roadshows in Saudi Arabia to offer young players a route to a potential career in football. 

“Saudi Arabia is ahead of a lot of countries in the region,” said Conor Shiels, director at the Gulf United Academy. “They have a bigger pool of players to choose from, and they’re more passionate about football too.” 

The first roadshow hosted about 30 players, but attendance at the second more than doubled to a remarkable 70 plus. As with any country that loves the sport, Saudi Arabia has spawned youth players who are adept at putting the ball under their spell. This is something that Shiels has seen at his roadshows, although these raw skills often come at the expense of an understanding of the basics. 

“We’ve seen (Saudi) street ballers where the technique is good and they move the ball well. In one versus one and small-sided games, they’re really good,” Shiels said. “But in a game situation (11-a-side), they didn’t know the tactical side too much.” 

Although this might be an issue now, Shiels thinks Ronaldo, Benzema, Neymar and others coming into the league will ultimately help to improve the understanding of tactics in the long run.  

“The international input into the league will continue to improve year on year,” he said. “Combining with expats (at all levels) will help to raise the levels of the league and local players.” 

One of the concerns at Saudi grassroots levels right now is a lack of facilities for recreational play. The situation is being addressed, however, as football undergoes a huge overhaul as the country readies itself to host the World Cup in 2034, but there is still a long way to go. 

“I’m not an authority on this, but from speaking to people on the ground (in Saudi Arabia), the private school facilities are unbelievably good, but there aren’t many for public ones,” Shiels said. “Some kids travel an hour just to get to a pitch to play. The UAE leads the way globally for consistency with the high standard of pitches.” 

This is all part of the infrastructure that needs to be in place to get the best out of the up-and-coming players in the country. At the moment, there are franchised academies, such as Paris Saint-Germain in Saudi Arabia, which can coach and nurture the stars of tomorrow. But those players without a club — the literal grassroots — have few options, because competitive amateur leagues where they can play regular matches do not yet exist. 

Interestingly, many youth leagues around the world are initiated by third parties rather than the country’s official football association. For example, the Dubai Amateur Football League and Youth Football League Dubai are independent of the UAE Football Association, but without them, the grassroots scene would be nonexistent.  

The Gulf United Academy roadshow has dropped anchor in Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, Uganda, South Africa and other countries. As part of its plans to be “one of the biggest football brands in the region in the next five years,” the club is considering setting up a permanent Saudi Arabian headquarters in the future to tap the local market. 

“We’re having internal discussions about setting up an academy in Saudi Arabia, which is based on how much the sport is growing there,” Shiels added. 

With some of the best players in the world now plying their trade in the SPL, the popularity of the sport in Saudi Arabia will only increase. The knock-on effect will be an overflowing talent pool that could help steer the Green Falcons to success on home soil come the World Cup in 2034.  

If the grassroots level can bridge the gap for young players to find the coaching and game time to excel, then Saudi Arabian football is destined to reach new heights. 


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