It was an announcement that immediately threw up as many questions as it intended solutions.
On Sunday, Middle East football website Ahdaaf.me dropped a bombshell by revealing that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) had decided to loan out members of the nation’s expected World Cup squad to several clubs across Europe in the winter transfer window.
“Adel Ezzat, who was elected to head the [SAFF] back in January, alongside Turki Al Al-Shaikh, the newly appointed head of the General Sports Authority, flew to Madrid last week to finalise the agreement which, amongst other objectives, accelerates the transfer of top Saudi players to La Liga teams ahead of the 2018 World Cup,” Ahdaaf wrote. “Scouts from several La Liga clubs are expected to arrive to Saudi over the next few weeks to take a closer look at the players listed for loan by the SAFF as part of the agreement.”
For many the reaction was, about time. Some of us have long called for the movement of Gulf and Middle East footballers to Europe or other top leagues around the world. The SAFF, who will fund this project, has taken a brave decision here and called for assurances that the players will be guaranteed playing time. In theory, initially at least, it seems like a win-win situation.
But has this unprecedented move really come at the right time? Or is it another case of a well-intentioned decision taken in haste?
As a long term-project, this could undoubtedly benefit Saudi football, and especially the Saudi national team. The 2019 AFC Asian Cup, for example, could feature players battle-hardened by a full year of playing abroad.
However, if the ultimate goal is a significant spike in form just in time for Russia 2018, then the endeavor could fall short. Five months are arguably not enough to ensure significant improvement.
Change for the sake of change can often backfire. At a time when the national team should be going through a period of stability after qualification to the World Cup, unknown factors are being belatedly introduced to the equation.
Saudi have already replaced the man who got them to the World Cup finals, Bert van Marwijk, with ex-UAE coach Edgardo Bauza.
While van Marwijk’s refusal to spend more time in the Kingdom ultimately cost him his job, there is no denying that he had reshaped Saudi football over the last few years, from grass roots all the way to the national team. His departure will be adversely felt.
And now, this announcement, despite the best of intentions, will bring unexpected upheaval to the players.
For a start, just how much of a say do they have about being transferred to a foreign country? We have consistently called for Arab and Asian footballers to move to Europe in the hope of bettering themselves, but surely this should be out of conviction, not obligation.
A move in January will barely give the players enough time to acclimatise to their new environment, never mind securing regular starting spots or excelling. As ever, they would have to adapt to different weather conditions, culture and food.
It has taken players far more experienced than these Saudi players years to settle in new environments. There should be no expectations that the chosen ones will adapt quicker.
Meanwhile the players already at the Spanish clubs, or elsewhere – many of whom will have their own battles to fight – will hardly be expected to roll out the red carpet to the incoming visitors just to help Saudi’s World Cup campaign.
The Saudi players will need to prove they are capable of competing at a level that few have experienced before. Technically, tactically and physically they will be facing opponents of higher calibre.
When the talented Saudi international Yasser Al Qahtani had a trial at Manchester City in 2008, there were reports that some of the club’s more imposing figures were asked to test his mental and physical fortitude during training and that he was found wanting. Omar Abdulrahman, on trial at the same club after the 2012 Olympics, was not spared the rough treatment either.
Minimum playing time might be promised, but there can be no guarantees that form, and lasting improvement, will follow.
And while the length of this European adventure is almost certainly too brief to produce a spectacular upturn in form or standard, could it be just enough to damage a player’s confidence weeks before the biggest month of his career?
The answer to this question, as well as many others, will only be answered next summer in Russia.