How Gulf United is helping unearth young Saudi football talent


The recent summer transfer window witnessed a surge in star players joining the Saudi Professional League (SPL), further elevating its global profile. Notable names like Neymar, Karim Benzema, N’golo Kante, and Riyad Mahrez are among those showcasing their talents in the league, hinting at a trend likely to continue with more world-class footballers attracted to the Kingdom.

While the SPL garners significant attention, there's comparatively little mainstream awareness about the youth development setups within Saudi Arabia. These setups are crucial for nurturing local talent aspiring to follow in the footsteps of top-tier players and represent the national team.

Major clubs in the region have extensive scouting networks, and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation implements initiatives aimed at grooming the country’s finest young footballers. However, given the Kingdom’s large population and football's immense popularity, many young players may explore alternative paths.

One such avenue is provided by Gulf United, a Dubai-based professional club competing in the UAE First Division League. Managed by ex-Swansea City and Wales star Neil Taylor, Gulf United operates an academy program designed to discover the region's most promising footballers. With strong ties to North American universities, Gulf United offers players aged 16 to 21 opportunities to earn scholarships abroad based on their skills.

Although Gulf United is based in the UAE, it recently conducted academy roadshows in Saudi Arabia, offering young players a pathway to potential football careers. According to Conor Shiels, director at the Gulf United Academy, Saudi Arabia stands out in the region due to its larger talent pool and passionate football culture.

Despite the talent's raw skills, which are evident in small-sided games, there's a need for greater tactical understanding, especially in full-scale matches. Shiels believes that the influx of international stars like Ronaldo, Benzema, and Neymar into the league will enhance tactical awareness among local players over time.

One concern at the grassroots level in Saudi Arabia is the lack of facilities for recreational play, although efforts are underway to improve this ahead of the 2034 World Cup. Additionally, while franchised academies like Paris Saint-Germain exist, there's a gap for grassroots players without club affiliations.

The Gulf United Academy's expansion plans include potential headquarters in Saudi Arabia, reflecting the sport's growth in the country. With the SPL attracting top talent and boosting football's popularity, there's optimism that bridging gaps at the grassroots level can propel Saudi Arabian football to greater success, especially with the upcoming World Cup.

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