Saudi Arabia is a country with a history of winning at football. They are two time world champions, and enter the 2014 INAS World Football Championship scheduled to start in about a week as clear favorites to win a third time over their nemesis, the Netherlands.
When you think of countries with a strong tradition of winning at football, Saudi Arabia does not immediately spring to mind. On the men’s able-bodied side, you think of Brazil, Germany, Spain, Uruguay, Argentina and Italy to name a few. On the women’s able-bodied side, you think the United States, Brazil, Sweden, China, Germany and even Canada and Australia. On the blind football side, you think of Brazil, China, Spain, Argentina. On the cerebral palsy side, you think the Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Powerchair football also has its favorites as the game has begun to recently develop with France and England being amongst the best in the world.
When you think of teams with a winning tradition, Saudi Arabia does not immediately spring to mind. And yet… their intellectual disability team is the best in the world. Why? How can this team without a national history of football success be so good?
First, let’s take a brief examination of why their other teams do not do well. The women’s team is easy. Religious leaders have prohibited a national team from existing. This goes back to 2008. While there is some women’s football going on in the Kingdom, it is limited and cultural and legal limitations, and access to facilities clearly define why the women are not going to have a strong history of success.
The able-bodied men’s team does not have a strong base to build on. Their domestic competition receives little attention, has few sponsors and the climate can make it difficult for players to physically play the game. Local regulations often make it difficult for the best players to leave the country and ply their trade abroad.
Powerchair football developed in Europe, and is a relatively recent variant of the game. The sport is only now beginning to develop in traditional sporting powerhouses for disability sport like Europe, North America and Australia. The best teams are the ones the essentially are continuing to evolve and promote the game.
Blind football and cerebral palsy football are harder to explain. Saudi Arabia appears to have only a limited history of participation in disability sports and visually impaired team sports specifically. The Saudi Arabia men’s national goalball team has not participated at the world championships, nor the Paralympics. In the world rankings, they are around 25th, behind regional powers like Iran, China, Japan, Qatar, Australia, and Thailand. Their appearance in December 2013 was their first time really being acknowledged. The blind football has not participated in any major regional tournament.
On the other disability team sport side, the Saudi team has not played at many high level competitions for wheelchair basketball. 2014 IWBF West Asia Wheelchair Basketball Championships is one such competition they participated at, but they wouldn’t be favorites. The country also lacks a basketball tradition. The country also lacks a wheelchair rugby team. None is ranked by the IWRF. Sledge hockey is also non-existent in the kingdom, and the country has no real history of playing ice hockey on the able bodied side. They also are not active in wheelchair hockey.
More specifically, when it comes to 7-a-side football, Saudi Arabia does not appear to have a team, and the CPISRA most recent rankings do not include Saudi Arabia. Regional teams include Iran and the United Arab Emirates. There is not a regional tradition of playing cerebral palsy football and succeeding at it.
Added to this, Saudi Arabia has never sent a sport team to compete in a team event at the Paralympic Games or at a major world championship. This includes goalball, sledge hockey, wheelchair basketball, 5-a-side football, 7-a-side football, sledge hockey, powerchair football, and wheelchair hockey. There is no tradition of participating and winning at this level.
The whys of this are very complicated, and would actually require a more indepth social analysis of the treatment of people with disabilities in the country.
Now, why is the intellectual disability team so successful? Because they have the support of the country’s Prince Faisal and other high ranking officials. Also, the National Paralympic Committee and the Special Olympics are run by the same organization in the country, the Paralympic Committee of Saudi Arabia. In this role, they support several intellectual disability sports including athletics, basketball, boccia, football, swimming, table tennis, snowshoeing. This sort of partnership with Special Olympics, which doesn’t exist in most countries with elite disability sport programs, gives intellectual disability athletes access to a competitive environment and different funding structures that are not available to countries that place a great emphasis on winning Paralympic medals.
The ID team is based out of the Olympic Training Center, and have the ability to and actually do train both inside and out. Many teams, existing outside their NPCs and the structure of their FIFA recognized national organization just do not have the same ability to train or access to high level training facilities.
The team has the support to win, the facilities to win, compete in a version that is established but not on the Paralympic program. They have support from high level people. These factors, against the backdrop of other teams lacking these, explain go a long way towards explaining the team’s success.