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'Saudi football is suffering'

With attendances at Saudi football matches dwindling, plans are afoot to improve the future of the domestic league.

Last Modified: 12 Sep 2013 11:26
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Widening his portfolio: Prince Abdullah, left, was announced last week as new joint owner of Sheffield United [GETTY]

Football clubs in Saudi Arabia must follow the example of the English Premier League and the NFL or face a bleak existence.

That is the warning from Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is ready to present his case to the Saudi government, pressing for the privatisation of all 14 clubs in the Saudi Professional League.

Prince Abdullah is chairman of the Football Privatisation Committee, which undertook an 18-month study into how a privatised league would work.

He told Al Jazeera: "Clubs in Saudi are owned by the Government but I’ve always loved the business aspect of football.

"I always thought that the American system is the best system. Why? Because I believe competition is good for sport.

"The way that the NFL makes the league competitive is they share most of the revenue. You see Green Bay, a very small city, can compete with New York, because of the way they share the revenue.

"I thought if we were to design a system, where we share most of the revenue but leave the big clubs some edge, that would be the best system.

"We signed with (finance specialists) Deloitte and some other legal firms and carried out a one-and-a-half year study and now we will present it to the government to convince them it’s the right time to privatise clubs."

Dwindling attendances

Riyadh-based Prince Abdullah, 47, is the former president of Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia’s most successful club. His brother, Abdulrahman bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz, is the club’s current president.

Attendances at Saudi club matches are dwindling, many stadiums need upgrading and Prince Abdullah fears for the future of domestic football.

If Prince Abdullah’s vision is realised, it would see clubs sold to investors, raising money to set up an English Premier League-style organisation to negotiate TV rights and other commercial deals.

Football in the past few years is suffering. Most clubs now have a huge financial deficit. That’s not a good way to make sport better

Prince Abdullah,

He said: "Football in the past few years is suffering. Most clubs now have a huge financial deficit. That’s not a good way to make sport better.

"Outside of North America, I liked the Premier League because all games are competitive. Stadiums are full.

"A league like Spain, where Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate the other 30 or so teams, I don’t think that’s good."

While the top clubs in English football might be the envy of the world, the national team’s glory days are a distant past. The World Cup victory in 1966 remains their only major tournament triumph.

But Prince Abdullah believes their next success could come in the unfamiliar surroundings of Qatar in 2022.

Fifa will next month decide whether to move the Qatar tournament to avoid being played in summer.

Prince Abdullah says that would be England’s best hope of lifting the trophy – and that manager Roy Hodgson admitted to him that a winter break is needed.

Prince Abdullah, 47, said: "I’ve not lived in Doha. I played football all the time in Riyadh, even in the summer, but Riyadh is not as humid.

"In every World Cup, England is one of the teams I support but they never do well.

"England have some good players. I chatted with Roy Hodgson, when he was Liverpool manager, about why England don’t do well in the World Cup.

"He said it’s because England is one of the only countries where there is no winter break.

"The team, when they go to a World Cup, are mentally tired, more than physically. In Italy and Spain and most countries, they have break in the winter, but here they have games every week.

"In July, the players are exhausted. That’s why I think if the World Cup was to change and be held in January, it will be a great advantage for England."

New ownership

Prince Abdullah’s fascination with the English game is such that last week he was announced as the new joint owner of Sheffield United, a team struggling two divisions below the Premier League in League One.

He bought 50 per cent of the club’s parent company for just £1 but has pledged to spend millions on improving the playing squad to get them back into the top division.

Along their way back to the top, Prince Abdullah’s new employees might be faced with a few long-haul flights.

The Prince said he would consider arranging friendly matches for Sheffield United in Saudi, provided they could be crammed into the club’s schedule.

He said: "Will I take Sheffield United to Saudi for a friendly? Why not?

"It can be very difficult to find time. The reason Manchester United came to Riyadh (in 2008) is because they were knocked out of the FA Cup and the League Cup but I don’t see why Sheffield should not be playing friendly games in Saudi Arabia soon."

James McMath is a football writer based in East Yorkshire in the UK, working for the Wardle-Whittell Agency (wwa-sport.com) You can follow him on Twitter: @mrjamesmcmath

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Al Jazeera
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