Sports writers and fans alike considered Saudi Arabias first appearance in a World Cup finals as a novelty. When the Saudi national team qualified for World Cup USA in 1994, it was largely viewed as a young team with little international experience that would quickly be eliminated when confronted by established teams. Saudi Arabias outstanding performance against world class teams and its advancement to the second round dispelled that notion and earned the respect of soccer enthusiasts all over the world.
When, in the fall of 1997, the Saudi team finished at the top of its division in qualifying to make its second consecutive appearance in the World Cup finals, the world viewed it in a different light. No longer was it an unknown and largely underestimated entity. The team was given its due respect as a leading power in Asia and a serious competitor at the highest levels of international soccer. In the weeks leading up to the 1998 World Cup in France, the national team played a series of friendly matches, including a tie with the English national team at Londons Wembley Stadium.
Unlike most European and South American teams at this years World Cup finals, Saudi soccer does not have a long and hallowed history. Indeed, soccer played at a competitive level is no more than 20 years old in the Kingdom. That in two short decades Saudi Arabia has managed to propel itself to the top level of world soccer is a phenomenal achievement by any standard, and one which reveals some insight into the Saudi approach to any undertaking if you do something, do it well. This is a philosophy Saudi Arabia has successfully applied in all its endeavors, whether they be in sports, industry, agriculture, health care, education or any other aspect of the Kingdoms affairs.
As in these and many other areas, Saudi Arabias policy has been to build from the ground up. In the case of soccer and other sports, this has required the establishment of a network of facilities to encourage the participation of the general public, and the youth in particular, in sports activities.
Although records show that the first soccer games were played in Jeddah as far back as 1928, the sport did not have mass appeal and languished for decades. In 1959, the Saudi Football Federation was established and soon put together a national team. In 1972, the federation became a member of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccers world governing body, and participated in regional and national tournaments.
During these years the development of sports was primarily the responsibility of the educational system. Soccer and other sports were played in school courtyards as part of physical fitness programs introduced by the Ministry of Education throughout the country beginning in the late 1950s. The objective of these programs, however, was not the promotion of soccer or other sports, but to ensure the physical development and general health of the younger generation.
As Saudi Arabia moved into an era of accelerated and extensive socioeconomic development programs in the early 1970s, it began looking at sports in a more serious manner. Realizing that encouraging the general public to become more active was an essential element of the Kingdoms national health program, Saudi Arabia created a specialized organization dedicated solely to the development of sports and other recreational activities for the young.
Founded in 1974, the General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) rapidly moved to study and determine the needs of the nation and introduced a series of five-year plans to realize those needs. While it supported the sports programs in place in elementary schools, high schools, colleges and universities, the GPYW also moved to formulate and introduce a national plan designed to make sports more accessible to Saudis throughout the country and help develop athletes to compete at the national, regional and international levels.
The organizations studies identified the Kingdoms requirements in sports facilities by region and prioritized them according to population densities. Under its first five-year plan, the GPYW began construction work on huge multi-function sports complexes in the major urban centers. Centered on a large outdoor stadium capable of seating as many as 60,000 spectators, and which can be used for soccer matches and a variety of other sports, the complexes each have a large indoor stadium, swimming pools, indoor and outdoor playing fields and courts, as well as cafeterias, conference rooms, cultural centers and clinics specializing in sports medicine.
As work on the construction of the 15 sports complexes was well advanced, the GPYW moved onto the second stage of its program, which provided for the establishment of numerous playing fields and neighborhood sports facilities in large cities. These neighborhood centers, which often include parks and green areas, provide a location for team sports and are a magnet to the children and young adults that live in nearby homes.
To ensure that residents of smaller cities and towns have access to similar sports facilities, the GPYW established a chain of sports clubs. Divided into three types according to the needs of local residents, these clubs generally have a multi-purpose hall, sports fields, recreational areas and accommodations for youth camps.
While it was working to establish these complexes and sports clubs, the GPYW introduced a national plan to ensure greater participation of the nations younger generation in sports in general. Various federations were established and each began youth development programs throughout the Kingdom.
In soccer, an extensive program was initiated by the Saudi Football Federation to encourage the young to participate at the neighborhood level. The more promising of these players are recruited into the neighborhood sports clubs where they receive coaching and training at a higher level. Today, 153 clubs field teams in various age groups to play in divisional competition organized by the federation. Of these, 123 compete in city and regional leagues and tournaments. The best of these players are then moved onto teams that compete in the second division, from the ranks of which come players for the first division teams. All of these teams are funded by the sports clubs, and the players at the higher levels are awarded professional status and paid by their clubs. The top level of professional soccer in Saudi Arabia is the Premier League, in which 12 teams compete professionally.
All of these clubs run special youth programs. Young players associated with these programs receive special training under the watchful eyes of coaches and more accomplished players under the developmental programs of the 153 clubs.
In addition to the regular league play, the club teams compete in a number of regional and national tournaments which offer substantial prizes. The most prestigious of these tournaments, which are open only to Premier and First Division teams, are the Kings Cup and the Crown Princes Cup.
An integral part of the national plan to develop soccer and other sports has been the effort to produce a large pool of coaches, trainers and referees. This is accomplished by offering special courses to applicants throughout the country by the various sports federations.
The impact of the GPYWs development program began to be felt some ten years after it was first introduced. While tens of thousands of young Saudis were moving through its sports network, the quality of its athletes improved steadily at national, regional and international competitions.
In soccer, Saudi teams began to excel at tournaments outside the Kingdom. The greatest achievement up to that time was realized when the national soccer team won the prestigious Asian Games Gold Cup and qualified for competition in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Four years later, the team successfully defended its Asian championships. In 1989, the Saudi youth team shocked the world when it won the Under-16 World Youth Soccer Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 1993, the national team finished at the top of its division to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States. The team repeated its performance in the 1997 qualifying rounds and appeared in its second consecutive World Cup finals this summer in France.
Whatever the outcome of the World Cup competition in France, the Saudi national team has proved that it is a serious competitor at the highest level of soccer and, having attained greater experience, will be a major force in future international competitions. In the process, it has also demonstrated Saudi Arabias ability to excel at any undertaking, whether it be dribbling a ball or successfully implementing development projects.