Move abroad to move up, says former Saudi captain
Sami Al Jaber, one of the legends of Saudi Arabian football, has urged Gulf countries to follow the lead of Asia's top-performing nations, such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, and allow their best young players to move abroad to develop their game.
"If you look at Australia, maybe 90 per cent of their players are playing in the European leagues," said Al Jaber, who has appeared in four World Cups and spent a season at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Championship in 2000/01.
"If you talk about Japan and South Korea, they are also doing the same. Their players are venturing out, going to different leagues in Europe. This has certainly helped in developing their football. The players learn new things and most importantly, they learn the value of being true professionals."
Gulf countries - such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE - once dominated the Asian football landscape, with the Saudis making the finals of five consecutive Asian Cups between 1984 and 2000, and winning three of them.
Saudi Arabia also qualified for four consecutive World Cup finals between 1994 and 2006 but, for the first time since the 1978 finals in Argentina, not a single Gulf nation featured at the World Cup in the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
The four Asian qualifiers for 2010 were Australia, Japan, and South Korea - all countries with a number of players plying their trade in different European leagues - as well as North Korea.
"In this region, we are just looking down at our feet; we are not looking ahead," Al Jaber said. "We need vision if we need to catch up with the countries of the Far East.
"We need to identify our best talents and send them abroad to the best leagues. That experience will be invaluable in the development of those players because in football, you need to keep learning, keep improving and you cannot without going to the higher leagues and competing with the best players."
Srecko Katanec, the UAE coach, has expressed a similar opinion in the past, saying that is the only way to take football in the country to the next level.
"It is difficult for the guys to grow up in this league and never leave it," Katanec said in an interview with The National. "It would be like if you and I played against each other every day. We would not learn much. We would not get better.
"We have players who are crazy-good technically. They can do everything with the ball. But they need to go outside the country to see how hard teams train, to learn to deal with the pressure.
"You would see that the national team would improve a lot if we had even two or three players at the higher levels."
Katanec's predecessor, the Frenchman Dominique Bathenay, had received regular inquiries from European clubs and agents about the likes of Ismail Matar and Mohammed Al Shehhi.
During his time as the UAE coach Bathenay said of Matar: "He has all the attributes to become a big star."
Matar was voted player of the tournament at the 2003 Youth World Cup and Bathenay said during his tenure: "So many agents and scouts from some of the best clubs in Europe have approached me about Matar, expressing their desire to sign him. Unfortunately, some obstacles have always prevented a move.
"The former France international Emmanuel Petit approached me about Al Shehhi and even got him a deal in Europe. Again, because of obstacles, the deal could not be completed.
"Our players are not any less talented than those from Iran, Japan, Australia or South Korea. But those players get the chance to go abroad and hone their skills. So we should start doing that if we want to close the gap on the leading teams in Asia."
Al Jaber, who is the sporting director of Al Hilal in Saudi Arabia, also wants clubs to spend more on their youth systems and get the best coaches to develop talent.
Dubai's Al Wasl have employed Albert Benaiges, the former chief of Barcelona'a famous La Masia academy, to revamp their youth system, and Al Jaber said more of the region's clubs should follow suit.
"They are spending a lot of money on bringing in the big names [foreign players] and transfers," he said. "But you need to take a bit more care of your youth and try to develop them, like we [Saudi Arabia] did in 1989 with the Under 16 World Cup in Scotland [which the Saudis won]. After that, Saudi Arabia qualified four times for the World Cup.
"But we are lagging behind now because we are not doing that. We need to think about the future and start working from the base up. We need to bring coaches to prepare the youth."