With Eye On World Cup, Saudi Arabia Opens Massive New Sports Academy.

By Taylor Walton

The Arab world’s largest economy is investing in its future with the new Mahd Academy launched earlier this week.

“We have more than 1.7 million students in elementary school who engage in sports for one hour a week, yet their talents are not recognized until they reach 14,” said Abdullah bin Faisal Hammad, the president of Mahd Sports Academy, in Monday’s opening ceremony.

“At this age, it is harder to create a sporting champion, if we can connect with them earlier and provide them with better and more training, we will be able to create better players.”

Abdullah bin Faisal Hammad, Manager Mahd Academy

In 1994, they reached the World Cup for the first time and even qualified for the round of 16. In four subsequent World Cup appearances, Saudi Arabia has failed to reach the group stage. Saudi Arabia hopes to reverse that and other sports misfortunes by investing early in its sports talent. While American youths often have a plethora of sports leagues to choose from that is often not the case for Saudi kids – especially in remote mountains and oasis villages of the kingdom.

Reema Banda Al-Saud, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, posted this video in support of the project

The new sports academy is also in line with the kingdom’s ambitious plan to modernize and develop under the terms of Saudi Vision 2030 strategic plan. In recent years sport has played a vital role in the diversification goals for the new economy. The shift accelerated after Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, became Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Sport in 2018. Al-Faisal who attended the opening ceremony of the Mahd Academy has been a driving force behind many of the nations new sports initiatives.

With the Dakar Rally, no longer able to cross the Sahara due to security reasons the event has been held around the globe. The famed long-distance car race moved to Saudi Arabia after a stint in South America this year. Saudi Arabia has also hosted the Spanish and Italian Super Cups as well as Formula E electric racing. Last December, the state received global media attention when it hosted the rematch between boxers Andy Ruiz, Jr. and Anthony Joshua for the heavyweight championship of the world. Conversely, three Saudi Super Cup finals have been held in London in the last five years suggesting the strong ties between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia.

Sport also presents an important benchmark of how much the country has changed. A decade ago the country had not sent a female athlete to the Olympics yet both boys and girls will train at the Mahd Academy.

The Mahd Academy is part of the second wave of that development plan which seeks to develop sporting talent within the kingdom and not merely remarkable talent from abroad. In late February, the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia hosted the world’s richest horse race with a purse of $20 million. That event included famed American horse racing personalities and also s Saudi owners, breeders, and other sports professionals. That event was attended by King Salman himself as well.

Then came the pandemic. If not for the COVID-19pandemic it is likely the kingdom would have hosted several other major sports events this year. The unveiling of the academy suggests that Saudi Arabian society is slowly re-opening.

The Mahd Academy will have its central, state of the art facility in Riyadh. However, the organization will have a national reach. The academy will help mold future Saudi champions in 20 different sports from track and field events to boxing. Some 10,000 physical education teachers, scouts, and other professionals will keep an eye out for young talent. Selected youth will then be invited to “Talent Discovery Centers” where some 1.7 million children will practice and play sport at 44 sites across the country by 2025 under the terms of the plan.

Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, Minister of Sport talks about hosting big events.

However, there is no doubt what sport is most prevalent in Saudi Arabia – soccer.

Due to COVID-19 related restrictions international sporting personalities who might have otherwise have attended the event including FIFA President Gianni Infantino, sent congratulations in their place including Fabio Capello, Roberto Mancini, Edwin Van der Sar and legendary Portuguese football coach José Mourinho.

Saudi Arabia’s football fans need all the help they can get. Saudi Arabia has struggled in recent years. The national team lost 5-0 to Russia in the 2018 World Cup. While that poor showing could be shrugged off as a severe loss to the home team, the Saudi team also gave a poor showing at the 2019 Asia Cup.

No doubt somewhere there are future Saudi soccer starts across the country hoping to revive the country’s sporting fortunes with a stint at the Mahd Academy.

Taylor Walton is a freelance writer in California