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Saudi football academies are looking forward to a boost from the first-ever Middle East World Cup

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RIYADH: As the World Cup brings some of the sport’s most famous names to Qatar, youth football academies in neighboring Saudi Arabia are expecting a rise in registrations but are urging more investment.

The Gulf kingdom has long been obsessed with soccer, but interest in playing — not just watching — has increased in recent years amid government efforts to promote physical activity under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda.

Among the Messis and Neymars wannabes are 11-year-old Abdulrahman Al-Ghamdi, who donned cleats for the first time in two years, encouraged by his uncle who once played for the prestigious local club Al-Nasr.

“One day I went up to the field and started to love it,” Al-Ghamdi told AFP during a recent training session. But Al-Ghamdi fears that he has already fallen behind his peers in other countries with more advanced lines of training.

“I really don’t think I’m going to be a top-level footballer because in England they have better qualities…and professional people” as coaches, he said. “There are little kids who are better than me.”

Even before World Cup fever descended on the region with its first edition in the Arab world, local academies were struggling to meet the needs of the youngsters taking to the pitch. Karim Zayan, general manager of the French Football Federation’s academy in the kingdom, said leveling the playing field should be a top priority as Saudi Arabia develops its youth teams and potentially vie for the rights to host the World Cup in 2030.

He told AFP that Saudi Arabia was “definitely” a football country. “They love to play, they love to watch, they love to encourage and support. This passion is no different than anywhere else,” Xian said. “The only difference is whether they have access to it or not.”

The French Academy opened its first facility in the capital Riyadh in January and has since added five more including in Jeddah and Dammam, training 500 young players in total. During a recent evening training session in Riyadh, more than 20 teenagers performed passing drills and kicked small goals before a brief scuffle, their parents cheering them on from the sidelines.

The pitch, in a residential complex, is something of a rarity in the Saudi capital: made of natural turf and big enough for an 11-player match, as opposed to the smaller fields of artificial turf.

“You have to take into account that it will certainly not be the same as in Europe or in France, for example, so you have to forget what you know and adapt to what is in front of you,” Xian said.

Wilfried Louise Daniel, a former professional player in France who is now training in Saudi Arabia, said he was impressed with the level of enthusiasm for the sport but “there are some things that need to be developed”.

Specifically, more youth teams are needed so players can compete close to home rather than having to travel hundreds of kilometers (miles) for a game, he said. And he assessed that the demand would only increase during and after the World Cup, especially if the Saudi national team does a deep job.

The Green Falcons have qualified for six World Cups, but have qualified for the knockout stages only once, during their debut in 1994. “If we have a good campaign, plus it’s the first World Cup in the Middle East, it’s certainly going to That will bring a lot of excitement.”

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