With game in London, Saudis use soccer to reshape reputation

With high expectations that border on shamelessly over-optimistic, Saudi Arabia is bringing its soccer league to London this weekend in a bid to compete with the Premier League and other top European competitions.

The Middle Eastern country’s Super Cup, a match between last season’s league champion and cup winner, will be staged Saturday in west London, only a few miles from a Premier League showdown between Chelsea and Arsenal.

“We are raising our profile and showcasing the quality of our league,” Saudi Arabia soccer federation general secretary Luai Al-Subaiey told The Associated Press. “This is part of a long-term engagement plan that fits with our ambition as a football-loving, global country. We are investing in our own league and building its reputation.”

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, has been rather ambitious recently, trying to overhaul its economy and make it more resilient in the face of lower oil prices. It has been working on boosting domestic spending and hopes to open the country to foreign tourists to create more jobs for the millions of young Saudis who will be entering the workforce in the coming years.

This weekend’s match between Al Hilal and Al Ittihad at Loftus Road, the home of Queens Park Rangers, is an effort to start the country on a path to worldwide soccer acceptance. By 2020, General Sports Authority head Turki al-Sheikh has the lofty goal of making the Saudi league one of the top seven in the world.

There is a long way to go.

“At the moment, there are clearly many leagues around the world — particularly here in Europe — that are more established than our league,” Al-Subaiey said. “But if we invest at the grass roots, if we ensure good governance and invest in the right places then the Saudi league has great potential.”

The government hopes to achieve its goals by privatizing clubs, many of which are owned by members of the royal family. But on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Saudi Arabia scored a 46 last year, or what is considered a “failing grade.” Rights groups have also criticized a crackdown on dissent by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son and heir who has closely associated himself with soccer recently.

Promoting soccer is also a way for the Saudis to glean some more positive attention. That mission appeared to be undermined by Al-Sheikh becoming embroiled in a public spat recently with international soccer bodies over accusations by regional rival Qatar that a Saudi government-funded broadcasting service is illegally rebroadcasting sports rights from Doha-based BeIN Sports.

The dispute escalated during the World Cup, where Saudi Arabia won once and lost twice in its three Group A matches.

“We want to improve standards, build our reputation, develop relationships and take our place in international football,” Al-Subaiey said.

A major obstacle to the development of the league was a long-standing debt that had been piled up by clubs in unpaid salaries to past players and coaches, reaching a reported $340 million by May. Al Ittihad was hit with a transfer ban by FIFA and, along with Al Nassr, was barred from competing in the 2018 Asian Champions League.

In May, the crown prince announced that he would cover the outstanding debts. Since then, Saudi clubs have been busy in the transfer market and are now allowed to sign eight foreign players, as opposed to the usual four or five in most Asian leagues.

Al Hilal signed United Arab Emirates playmaker Omar Abdulrahman earlier this month on a season-long loan for $15 million. Coach Jorge Jesus, who joined recently from Sporting Lisbon, has also signed Peru international Andre Carrillo.

Al Nassr signed Nigeria international Ahmed Musa from 2016 Premier League champion Leicester.

“There are a lot of high-quality foreign players coming to Saudi Arabia now,” said Matt Jurman, an Australia international who signed for Al Ittihad from South Korean club Suwon in July. “It is an exciting time to play here and I will face some top-class strikers.”