Saudi football: The more things change…

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 30, 2023
The first Saudi football podcast and other spin-offs underline the excitement, which may or may not last

Madinah Saudi Arabia. Photo by Afdhallul Ziqri on Unsplash

The spin-off from Saudi Arabia’s rising interest in some of the world’s biggest sports assets has been noteworthy. Particularly the 2023 season of the Saudi Pro League (SPL). [Click here to read my Times of India piece on the subject.]

Take the new podcast from Arab News, the oil-rich kingdom’s first English-language newspaper, one that is printed  on distinctive green-tinted  stock.  The first Saudi football podcast, Dawri, bills itself as a show “dedicated to the revolution sweeping Saudi football”.  Its name apparently comes from one of the more common Arabic words for football player/coach.

What I found particularly interesting in the first episode of the podcast was the latitude given to Filippo Ricci, Spain correspondent of Gazzetta dello Sport, the nearly 130-year-old Italian daily dedicated to sport.

Mr Ricci, a veteran who has covered football across multiple continents for 30 years, was given his head on the podcast and allowed to offer an honest rather than hagiographical take on Saudi chances of success in world football.

Thus it became clear that Mr Ricci’s view of the hundreds of millions spent on buying top foreign players is wait-and-see. As “the first European journalist to fly” to Saudi Arabia, Mr Ricci said he felt well qualified to note both the highs and lows of what’s underway in the kingdom.

He subsequently repeated this in a multi-thread post on X, formerly known as Twitter. Some of the highlights of his realism on the Dawri podcast were as follows:

“This is a revolution. I’ve never seen something like that.”

“The weather (in Saudi Arabia) is an issue…I’ve covered a lot of Africa Cup games but the weather (here) is unbearable.”

“Players coming from Europe…let’s see how they adapt, the weather is  terrible….”

“Let’s see when European football will be at full steam how much interest we can have for the SPL.”

And finally, one of Mr Ricci’s posts on X had special relevance considering the mixed opinions about whether or not the SPL’s ambitiousness and avarice is a good thing for world football: “The future is unwritten, as Joe Strummer would say. This is why we need to watch, observe, listen and report. And draw our conclusions based on our direct experience.”

The point is the Saudi podcast didn’t rein Mr Ricci in. This wasn’t a total PR exercise.

Also read:

‘Could poor, rich Saudi Arabia ever be match fit?’

The Saudi shimmy: Oil’s well with football

Philby was writing about Saudi Arabia’s anti-western core a hundred years ago

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