After the website had crashed, but before the falcon arrived, Salem al-Dawsari was introduced by his new club.
Inside the Estadio de la Cerámica, the banana-yellow-skinned home of the Spanish team Villarreal, a few dozen journalists had arrived to view Dawsari, a midfielder who had become something of a curiosity in the Spanish news media. For one, Dawsari was among the first players from Saudi Arabia to sign for a team in La Liga, Spanish soccer’s top league.
But that was only part of the story.
The deal that had brought Dawsari, a 26-year-old midfielder, and another young Saudi player to this city of 50,000 near Spain’s east coast, was only part of a larger, more controversial one. Nine Saudi players were lent to Spanish teams during the January transfer window as part of a multiyear marketing and licensing arrangement between the Saudi soccer federation and La Liga.
The long-term goal, the parties said, is to develop and promote soccer; the more pressing one is to improve the standard of the Saudi national team ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Russia.
If little was known in Spain about Dawsari when his move was announced, his new club soon discovered he was something of a star for his former team Al Hilal, the reigning Saudi champion. Hundreds of thousands of soccer-mad Saudis inundated Villarreal’s website to watch the live feed of Dawsari’s introductory news conference, crashing the club’s servers. Two videos posted on Villareal’s Twitter feed of Dawsari juggling a soccer ball on the field at Estadio de la Cerámica racked up more than 100,000 views in a matter of hours.
“I’ve dreamed about playing in Spain for a club as big as Villarreal,” Dawsari said once the website was fixed and the traffic was rerouted to YouTube. His move was, he added, “a dream come true.”
Shortly after, Dawsari and his entourage had their pictures taken with the club’s falcon, a seemingly astute piece of cultural sensitivity on the club’s part, given the popularity of falconry in Saudi society.
The bird’s handler, however, was a little confused. He and the falcon had come to the stadium for pest control, to catch rats. But he didn’t let on.
In October, the General Sports Authority, the government body that effectively runs sports in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation announced that they were embarking on a soccer experiment. It was time to showcase the country’s players, nearly all of whom play domestically, to the outside world. A heavily subsidized deal was signed with La Liga, opening the way for the country’s best players to be lent to Spanish teams ahead of the World Cup.
It will not be Saudi Arabia’s first World Cup finals. At the 1994 tournament in the United States, Saudi Arabia became the first Middle Eastern team to reach the knockout phase. Along the way, midfielder Saeed al-Owairan scored what is considered one of the finest solo goals in World Cup history.
But Saudi Arabia had not reached the finals since 2006, and in June it will play the opening game against host Russia at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. A repeat of the team’s opening game of the 2002 World Cup, an 8-0 mauling by Germany, had to be avoided at all costs.
The Spanish arrangement is a rare foray for Saudi players outside the kingdom, where they enjoy high wages and big crowds in their domestic league. But it is not the first deal of its kind. Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, has invested in a network of clubs across the Europe, and last year, the Chinese soccer federation signed a deal with its German counterpart to place its under-20 national team in the fourth tier of German soccer. (That venture ended after pro-Tibet protesters attended the first game and the Chinese team left the pitch, never to return.)
To decide which Saudi players would be sent to Spain, La Liga invited scouts from Spain’s top two leagues to attend two international friendlies involving Saudi players in October in Portugal. Sixteen of La Liga’s 20 clubs sent scouts, although the two largest and best-followed teams in the Gulf, Barcelona and Real Madrid, did not. Later, another Spanish scouting team traveled to Riyadh to see the Saudi professional league in action.
The Spanish clubs would get the players free, and pay them only the league’s mandated minimum wage. Saudi Arabia would pick up the tab for the rest of their salaries, as well as for the Spanish coaches who would later travel to Jeddah to help set up a soccer academy. There would be a commercial fee, too, unannounced but believed to be in the millions — rather than the whispered tens of million — of dollars, but no requirement compelling the Spanish clubs to play their Saudi players.