“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.
Nobody wanted to ruin the moment.
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.
More important, according to Fernando Sanz, a former Real Madrid and Málaga player who oversees the Middle East and North Africa for La Liga, it was a chance for some of Spain’s smaller clubs to make a name for themselves.
“For clubs like Leganés and Levante, who are not very popular around the world, they have a big opportunity to enter into a big market like Saudi,” he said. Commercial deals with Saudi sponsors could follow, Sanz suggested.
Not everyone was as happy as Sanz and La Liga. The Madrid-based sports newspaper Marca announced the Saudi deal on its front page with the headline, “Petrodollars and La Liga.” The Spanish players’ union released a statement criticizing the arrangement for putting profit before talent.
“These deals may become global and the spots on teams become auctioned in exchange for sponsorships,” one union official said. “What we should probably ask is: ‘Would these players have come to Spain in the absence of a sponsorship agreement? Would the clubs have signed them?’ ”
To Dawsari, it should not be unusual for a Saudi to play in Europe.
“Saudi Arabian football is very good and Saudi players are very strong,” he said, pointing out that the Saudis are playing in the World Cup for the fifth time. If a higher level of competition ahead of the World Cup sharpens the edges of his game, he said, that will be a plus. But, he added, “I can play very well.”
He is aware, though, of the pressure to prove his doubters wrong.
“I want to learn from my mistakes and to reach a high level,” he said. “Because I am not representing only myself. I am representing Saudi Arabia.”
Dawsari was chosen, according to Villarreal’s chief executive, Fernando Roig Jr., primarily for what he brought to the team. The club is at a crucial stage in its season: It has reached the knockout stages of UEFA’s Europa League and, at fifth place in La Liga, is pushing for Champions League qualification for next season.
“It is a deal to open markets,” Roig said, acknowledging critics of the arrangement, “but we think he is a good player.”
At that point, Dawsari had only been in the country for three days, and he was still finding his feet. The food was different, he said, but the club had made sure everything was halal. Once his introductory obligations were completed, he planned to go into the city and look for a suitable mosque for Friday prayers.
Dawsari wasn’t sure whether he would be on the squad for the weekend’s game against Real Betis in Seville, or the ones after that, but he was sure he was ready.
“I hope so,” he said when asked whether he believed he would be picked. “But the decision is from the coach.”
When match day arrived in Seville, though, Dawsari was left off the squad. The social media reaction was ferocious.
Virtually every Twitter post by Villarreal, Levante and Leganés since the January transfers were announced has been inundated with tweets extolling the virtues of the teams’ new Saudi players, or demanding that they play. When Dawsari did not, his fans rained criticism on the club.
Dónde está Salem?
No Salem, no party.
Other Saudi fans vowed to avoid the club until he played. When Villarreal lost, 2-1, thousands gleefully pointed to Dawsari’s absence as the reason.
Meanwhile, an hour’s drive south, in Valencia, thousands of people had lined the streets outside Levante’s stadium to await the arrival of Real Madrid. Levante is Valencia’s second team, and in the midst of a forgettable season. It had gone two months without a win in the league. Few expected that would change against Real, or that Levante’s new Saudi player, the lightning quick wing Fahad al-Muwallad, 23, could do anything to turn the tide.
“If the reason to buy this player is a sporting reason and because he’s a good player, then that is O.K.,” said Jordi Palau, a 34-year-old Levante supporter.
The club had posted a video of the Levante team warmly welcoming Muwallad during the week, and tens of thousands of Saudis had responded positively online.
But Palau’s guarded approval was a moot point. Muwallad, who signed from the Saudi giants Al Ittihad, wasn’t on Levante’s squad, nor was the third Saudi, Yahya al-Shehri, at Leganés. As they had with Villarreal, angry Saudis flocked to social media to threaten to abandon the Spanish club (at least online) if their countrymen were not picked.
Instead, Muwallad watched a brilliant Levante comeback, and the crowd reveled in a late draw with Madrid. His debut would have to wait.
“Football in Saudi Arabia is strong, it is a strong league,” Muwallad said the next day. “But Spain is stronger and faster.”
He was confident that soon enough, he and his countrymen would get the chance to show the league what they could do, and perhaps calm the Saudi fans back home.
“I will show them my skills, inshallah,” he said, “and I will make the fans very happy.”