In Saudi Arabia, soccer—association football—has no rival. It is played in small villages where a few boys with a ball make goal posts from sticks, and it is played by organized, uniformed teams in city stadiums throughout the kingdom.
Soccer was probably first played in Arabia about 1927, but it grew fastest after 1939 when it was introduced on the eastern coast near the oil fields of the Eastern Province. Most of the first players were Aramco employees who had picked up the sport from the British on nearby Bahrain Island, but when foreign craftsmen from Italy, Sudan, Somalia and Aden rushed to work in the area after World War II, soccer spread rapidly. The game came last to the center of Saudi Arabia, to Riyadh, the capital, when a number of young government officials were transferred there from Jiddah in 1941.
By the early 1950's so many teams had sprung up that the Ministry of the Interior set up the country's first office for sports affairs, a predecessor of today's Directorate of Youth Affairs, part of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. This directorate establishes sports rules and regulations, schedules tournaments and offers technical or financial help to teams and athletic clubs. In 1969 it took an important step to bring order into the previously haphazard growth of soccer when it classed the kingdom's cities according to size and stipulated the number of recognized teams which could officially represent each. The smaller local teams thus became feeders for the bigger city-wide squads. The city of Jiddah, for example, has three official teams, Mecca one and Riyadh four.
Two kingdom-wide tournaments are held each year. In the first—the King's Cup—teams within each province (the Eastern Province, Najd and Hijaz), play each other twice to establish the three provincial champions. The three finalists each then play two matches with the other two and the final, exciting play-off is contested in Riyadh with the King present and most of the nation joining in by means of radio and television. The second major yearly tournament pits town teams against city teams on a knockout basis.
Considering the population of the country and the newness of the sport, the public's enthusiasm for soccer seems as great to me as that of U.S. sports fans for baseball and American football. Competition on the field itself gets tremendously heated (and not, if I may be excused a pun, mainly because tournaments take place in the summer months). So far Saudi Arabia has been spared the fist fights seen on European (and recently Egyptian) playing fields, but I must admit that there have been a number of what I could call "heated discussions." And spectators get almost as involved as the players. Each team has its faithful supporters who never miss a game. They wave their favorite's pennant in the stands, and shout themselves hoarse. Woe to the fan who accidentally wanders into a seat on the wrong side of the field. There are even a few fanatically loyal fans who have become as famous as the players themselves. One such man in the Eastern Province circuit is Ibn Sha'ab. His unofficial title: "Number One Spectator." Anyone who attends matches on a regular basis can recognize him as the loudest voice in the stands, constantly shouting advice to players, the referee or anyone else who will listen.
Number One Spectator, Ibn Sha'ab, told me once that when he sees outstanding footwork, when a player moves the ball rapidly down the field in perfect control, it makes him think of "neat stitches on a piece of cloth." But he didn't stay in such a poetic mood very long, quickly adding, in his typically loud voice, that as far as he was concerned "you seldom see a really good game." Those of us who want to see good games and want to see soccer continue to grow and improve in Saudi Arabia hope their country's teams will have more chances to travel abroad and face new and stronger competition, to test different techniques, to try other playing fields—even to hear the roar of other crowds.
Incidentally, soccer in Saudi Arabia is not a professional sport. Usually teams recruit young men who work or study in their area. Some club players, such as center Fahad al-Bassam of al-Qadisiyah, also take part in inter-school competitions. Among the country's popular stars are men such as Muhammad Sa'ad of Riyadh's al-Nasir, known for his speed and control while running, and Omar Rajkhan of Jiddah's al-Ahli, who seldom misses a goal. Rajkhan told me that one of his secrets was learning—after years of trying—to shut out the noise of the crowd, cheers or boos, in order to better concentrate on scoring.
A very famous athlete, Salim Farouz, who unfortunately has now retired from the game, used to trick his opponents as they ran beside him down the field, faking them by seemingly reversing his direction, but actually just shifting the upper part of his body momentarily, much as a skilled oriental dancer does. The playing fields of the Eastern Province will probably have a long wait before they witness another Salim in action.
A big moment for fans in the finals of last year's King's Cup occured when Jiddah's high-scoring Sa'id Mathkoor returned to the playing field after a year out. Mathkoor, popularly known as 'Ugab ("Eagle"), is a handsome, likable man who has been known to break into song when his teammates' morale needs boosting. His famous shirt. No. 10, was recognized with mixed emotions by the stands that day. Could he make a comeback? Did he have the old magic? As it turned out, he did. But until he scored I think the Saudi soccer crowd felt much as the U.S. football crowd must have felt not long ago when the Jets met the 49ers in Shea Stadium and Joe Namath had to take over from an injured Bob Davis.
But no wonder fans get excited. It's a beautiful thing to watch when a player's nimble feet maneuver the ball back and forth, give it a powerful kick, or stop it on the spot when it plunges down from a great height. And when a good man controls the ball between his feet as he races down the field toward the goal it's as beautiful, as Number One Spectator says, as "neat stitches on a piece of cloth."
Abdullah Hussaini has played soccer since he was a boy in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. He has written sports for al-Yawm, a newspaper, and al-Riyadi, a sports magazine. Trained in journalism at Syracuse University, Hussaini is editor of the Arabic-language Oil Caravan Weekly, a newspaper for Aramco employees.