Saudi 'fiasco' in Spain as World Cup preparation
Salem Al-Dawsari (Getty Images)
Cape Town - Nine Saudi players loaned to Spanish clubs to improve their level before the 2018 Soccer World Cup left without hardly playing in what ended up as a "fiasco".
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"Adapting is difficult," said David Cobeno, sporting director at Madrid-based second division side Rayo Vallecano, which signed 24-year-old Saudi midfielder Abdulmajeed Al-Sulayhem.
"Everything outside of sports, the language, food, the city, that was what was hardest for him," he said.
Al-Sulayhem, who only speaks Arabic, needed to be accompanied at all times by a translator, even during training. He never played in an official match.
A scenario was played out at six other Spanish clubs which took on one or two Saudi players during the winter transfer window under an agreement between La Liga and the Saudi Sports Authority.
The cost of the loans was split between the participating Spanish and Saudi clubs.
The initiative was not popular in either country since the Saudi players - including several who are part of the Saudi team which will face Russia in the World Cup opening match on Thursday - hardly got any time on the pitch.
Saudi winger Salem Al-Dawsari, who was on loan at Villarreal in Spain's top-flight, and striker Fahad Al-Muwallad who went to Levante, only played for a few minutes at the end of the season when their teams' fate was already decided.
Attacking midfielder Yahia Al-Sheri, who went to Leganes, never played in a match.
In the second division none of the four clubs that received a Saudi - Sporting Gijon, Valladolid, Numancia and Rayo Vallecano - used them in a match.
None of those clubs responded to AFP's request to discuss the Saudi players.
"From a sporting point of view, this is perhaps the biggest fiasco of the agreement, because the participation of these nine players has been practically negligible," former Gijon president and University of Oviedo football economist Placido Rodriguez told AFP.
"Knowing training techniques or playing with Spaniards, that is not why they come, clearly. They come for more than that, to contribute, to experience another rhythm of play, and that is done by playing, not training."
La Liga defends the agreement, which helps its ambitious international expansion policy.
In Saudi Arabia, "they may have thought they would play more, but they also realised that the level of the Spanish championship is very, very high," said Fernando Sanz, La Liga director for the Middle East and North Africa.
"The project is not based on whether they played more or less," Sanz said, adding some players gained "over four kilos of muscle" due to the quality of the training.
"These kinds of agreements mean the Liga brand enters (Saudi Arabia) much more."
But the initiative has its critics in Spain.
Jesus Barbadilla, of Spanish football players' union AFE, accused La Liga of "in a certain way auctioning off spots" in teams in Spain with such deals.
In the weeks after the loans were agreed, a Saudi telecoms firm signed advertising contracts with the seven clubs that received players on loan.
Sanz said this was not a trade-off but the result of the clubs having gained greater visibility in Saudi Arabia.
"Logically, Saudi companies are interested in where their players play," he said.
Rodriguez said he believes the ultimate goal of the agreement is to make the sale of TV rights for the Spanish league more attractive in Saudi Arabia.
But what really draws viewers to a particular league is the presence of big stars such as Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo, he added.
"These are the type of players you need to have to have bigger revenues," Rodriguez said.