A new hero is emerging in Saudi Arabia. His face may be seen in photos and clippings on school bulletin boards in Jiddah, the ancient Red Sea gateway to the Holy City of Mecca. His trophies are on display in the sports clubs of the Eastern Province, the center of the country's oil industry. His feats are lauded officially in Riyadh, the national capital, and are reported each week in Al-Riyadhah, a sports paper. He is the Saudi soccer player, and although none among his growing number has yet achieved the glamorous status enjoyed by Mickey Mantle or Arnold Palmer in the United States, such honors are not far off. For soccer has in the past four decades become the baseball of Saudi Arabia.
Youngsters across the country in schoolyards and on community playing fields inherit worn soccer balls handed down by older brothers, and so learn the rudimentary footwork of the game. One and all, they dream of the day when they will play goalie or right inside or center forward for one of Saudi Arabia's outstanding sports clubs and compete in the country's "world series" of soccer, the national inter-province play-offs. The national competition is divided into three categories: major league teams representing individual clubs, major league teams representing each province (these are all-star teams selected from the clubs in each province), and minor league teams from the individual clubs.
Players and fans alike at the end of Ramadhan, the Muslim month of fasting, hail the opening of the soccer season and set their hearts upon the four highly prized national soccer trophies. They are the King's Cup (for the best "A" club team), the Crown Prince's Cup (for the best all-star province team); the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs Cup (for the best "B" club team), and the Directorate of Athletic Affairs Cup (for the outstanding minor "A" league team). The distinctions between the major and minor league teams are roughly those of American baseball. However, soccer in Saudi Arabia is an amateur sport; there are, as yet, no professional teams. The national championship cups are awarded annually under regulations enforced by the Department of Social Institutions of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.
A traveler with a keen eye doesn't need to see a thousand fans crowding the sidelines or sitting in the stands to determine quickly the popularity of soccer in Saudi Arabia. There is an offhand touchstone that, incidentally, he can use anywhere in the world. Let him watch a group of young men strolling along in Jiddah, or Riyadh, or Dammam. They approach an object lying in the street—a wadded paper bag, a tin can, or even a rock. One of the young men moves toward it restively, and with a sudden, graceful flick of his foot sends the object scudding. Another takes this "pass" and begins to run easily while guiding the object forward without breaking stride. A third moves in and with a swift foot gesture steals the play. The movement flows with ballet-like grace. Suddenly, like a veronica of a Spanish boy flourishing an imaginary bullfighter's cape at a passing car, the ritual gesture is all over and the young men walk on. This, the traveler assures himself, is a good soccer town.
The odds heavily favor his assumption, whether it be made in a Saudi Arab city or in Buenos Aires, for the sun never sets on soccer. When the Saudi Arabs adopted the game as their national sport, they allied themselves with thousands of players and millions of fans the world over. Soccer is the number one global sport. The game evolved in Great Britain during the past three centuries, and, as one historian has observed, "everywhere that Britons went they played association, or 'soccer.' The fact that it could be played under almost any conditions except in fog added to its appeal." Just before the American Civil War the "Football Association" was founded in England to regularize the rough and tumble sport which had once pitted entire villages and towns against one another in bloody brawling. The correct name of the game is association football. British players long ago embraced soccer, a corruption of association, as the common term for their favorite sport. They dropped the word football in ordinary speech, and late in the nineteenth century it was taken on the rebound by American college students as the name of the game in which the foot is almost never used.
Soccer requires little equipment—a set of goal posts, a ball, tough feet and shins, a highly competitive spirit, agility, and endurance.
Not long ago a middle-aged Saudi Arab, now desk-bound at his job with the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in Dhahran, recalled playing soccer as a child in Mecca. "We used a stocking filled with rags for a ball," he said. "And, of course, we stubbed our toes and bruised our feet. We played mostly in the streets. But at least there were practically no automobiles to worry about." He retired early from the game—"It was too rough"—but his youthful memories remain as a witness to the beginnings of soccer in Saudi Arabia. Like his Meccan playmates, he was merely imitating a new game that the older boys were playing.
Al-Sharif Muhammad ibn Shaheen, secretary of the well-known al-Wahda Sports Club of Mecca, has written an historical essay on the sport in Saudi Arabia, and he has placed its beginnings in Mecca in 1925. He has credited "our brothers, the Malayans and Indonesians" with introducing the game which they had brought with them as pilgrims to the Holy City of Islam.
Although only one Saudi Arab is remembered as having had the ability to participate in the new sport launched by the Malayan and Indonesian teams in Mecca in 1925, there were all-Saudi teams playing in Mecca and Jiddah by 1931. By then the game had spread rapidly and the year was marked by some outstanding "international" contests. There were teams made up of Saudis, Malayans, Filipinos, Siamese, and other groups from the far-flung Muslim world. Sponsors began to donate cups such as the Shaikh Sadaqa 'Abd al-Manan (the chief shaikh of the Javanese) Cup, the Najmat Shirbini Cup, and the Muhammad ibn Yassin Cup. The sports clubs that were to become a permanent feature of Saudi life were first established during the late 1920's and 30's. Also, the "minor" teams were started for schoolboys not yet ready for the vigorous competition of the older and more experienced teams.
The game, which had spread to the far corners of the world from Great Britain (the Malayan and Indonesian pilgrims had, of course, learned it from the British), had always required severe regulation to keep it from degenerating into a Donnybrook. The lack of such regulation led to difficulties in Saudi Arabia. A personal dispute between two of the clubs led to quarrels. The then director of Public Security canceled a grudge game between the feuding clubs and declared a general ban on the game which lasted six years. One is reminded of the Frenchman who watched an early form of soccer being played at Derby in England. At the end of the match he was supposed to have remarked: "If this is what the English call playing, it would be impossible to say what they call fighting."
However, the game was re-established successfully in Saudi Arabia, and the clubs again sponsored a schedule of matches. One of the first inter-country matches took place in 1950 when an Egyptian all-star team representing the Ministry of Health played two games against all-star teams from Jiddah and Mecca. The Saudi Arab host teams defeated their guests in the first game and dropped the second. By 1954 Saudi Arab soccer had found an influential friend and sponsor in H.R.H. Amir 'Abd Allah al-Faysal, the then Governor of the Hijaz and Minister of the Interior. The Amir established the Directorate of Athletic Affairs in his Ministry and saw to the healthy development of the sport, which by then had become a passionate public favorite. A director was appointed—'Ustadh Mustafa Kamil Mansur—and charged with the establishment of uniform rules and general jurisdiction over the game of soccer in Saudi Arabia.
The year 1954 also marked the establishment of the King's Cup, which for the past nine years has gone to the best team in the country. In 1957 a system of national championships was started, with categories of championships based upon the cups described earlier. During the 1950's, the game finally assumed a completely national character, and today the public registry of players is open only to Saudis. The decade was noted for the growth also of matches with teams from other Arab countries.
Soccer first flourished in the western part of the country, in the historic area known as the Hijaz. However, the growth of the oil industry in the Eastern Province after World War II gave rise to a soccer schedule in the recreation program of Aramco. Sudanese and Italian workers together with Bahrainis and Saudis from the Hijaz, playing after work, started informal teams in 1946, and young Saudis in Dammam, al-Khobar, al-Qatif and other nearby communities soon became enthusiastic fans. The Sudanese players spoke Arabic and soon began to coach the boys who followed their games. In 1948 soccer was formally incorporated into the Aramco recreation program, and a schedule of games was established. Overnight, as one of the first Saudi players remembers, "it was the game for us. We tried baseball and cricket, but soccer was just right. At first we had six Aramco teams that were all-Saudi, and we also had some mixed teams with Yemeni, Sudanese and Italian fellows. The company supplied the equipment and the transportation and prepared the fields. Then the clubs were started and Aramco helped them too because they were started by employees. The company has donated chairs, TV, books and games to the clubs. Now today we have both the Aramco season of competition as well as the national season. Many players from the Aramco teams, which are made up of employees only, also play with the club teams. In 1962 the all-star team from the Eastern Province—the best players from the different clubs in the communities—won the national Crown Prince Cup.
"What happened was this. The Eastern Province team played the all-star team from Riyadh. The game was a tie and was decided by a toss of a coin. The Eastern Province team won and then went to Jiddah and defeated the Hijaz team. You know, back in 1955 a team from the east went to Jiddah to play for the King's Cup and lost two games. Now we have better teams to send."
In 1958 an American team was formed in Dhahran among Aramco employees. It didn't last long. When asked what happened to the Americans, a Saudi Arab soccer enthusiast replied with friendly circumspection, "Maybe the game is too tough." An index to the native hardihood of the Saudi player can be found in the fact that during the summer, when the temperature rarely drops below 100° and the hot winds, the eye-stinging and suffocating shamals, trap Americans indoors, the Saudi teams go right on playing. They will even try to play right through a shamed, the desiccated, flying-sand equivalent of a British fog.
As already has been indicated, soccer in Saudi Arabia is strictly an amateur sport. However, a visitor with a background as a sports reporter in the United States notes that the Government has already had to regulate against the better players moving from one team to another. Each player must register before the season and remain with the same team for at least three years, a hedge against incipient professionalism. The tremendous competitive spirit of the sports clubs also provides a climate of attitude that would support underwriting a team so that it would be free to practice all day without the players having to work.
However, this is mere conjecture. What seems more likely, and imminent, is the arrival of a Babe Ruth of soccer in Saudi Arabia, a national hero who will capture the public fancy from coast to coast. Not long ago the Prime Minister called for the establishment of a television network in the country. The popular Aramco Television station long ago discovered that films of soccer matches have an extremely high rating with the TV audience. Given coast-to-coast coverage, and frequent exposure, a great goalie, for example, may suddenly become the new national hero, a sports-world knight in shining armor. History sometimes has a beguiling sense of the appropriate, and such a development would be only fitting. The chivalric hero of knighthood came out of the desert and was celebrated by the Bedouin poets. The new knight may find his bard in television.