Riyadh: As the World Cup brings some of the best-known names in sports to Qatar, youth football academies in neighbouring Saudi Arabia expect a spike in registrations but urge more investment.
The Gulf kingdom has long been obsessed with football, but interest in playing - not just watching - has surged in recent years amid a government push to promote physical activity under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform agenda.
Among the wannabe Messis and Neymars is 11-year-old Abdulrahman al-Ghamdi, who first put on cleats two years ago, encouraged by an uncle who once played for the prestigious local club Al Nassr.
"One day I stepped on the pitch and I started loving it," Ghamdi told AFP during a recent practice.
Even before World Cup fever descended on the region with its first edition in the Arab world, local academies were struggling to accomodate the needs of youngsters taking to the pitch.
Levelling the playing field should be a top priority as Saudi Arabia develops its youth teams and potentially vies for World Cup hosting rights in 2030, said Karim Ziane, general manager of the kingdom's French Football Federation Academy.
Saudi Arabia is "definitely" a country of football, he told AFP.
"They love to play, they love to watch, they love to cheer and support. This passion is no different than any other place," Ziane said. "The only difference is whether they have access to it or not."
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