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Mark Clattenburg’s new life in Saudi Arabia: What does his refereeing future look like?

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Mark Clattenburg is hoping to make a positive impact on the Saudi Arabian game

Mark Clattenburg is departing the Premier League to explore new opportunities – in Saudi Arabia.

The path ever more commonly walked by footballers in their autumn years is now seeing more traffic in referees too, with Clattenburg following in the footsteps of former colleague and Premier League match official Howard Webb in heading to eastward.

Having previously declared himself open to the possibility of refereeing in China, Clattenburg – a 12-year veteran of top-flight officiating in England – has now taken the plunge in Saudi Arabia.

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But why? And what will life as a world-renowned referee be like in the middle-eastern kingdom?

The Saudi Arabian football league, you say…

Yes. Well, the Saudi Professional League – known as the Jameel League officially (sponsors are sponsors).

It was founded in 1976, when football became a national rather than a regional game in the country. The season lasts from August to May, just like the Premier League – though the Saudis only manage to squeeze in 26 matches as the 14 teams play each other only twice. Al-Ahli are the reigning champions.

Thanks to the sponsors, the league has this frolicking mascot – ‘Jameel’ (how do they think them up?) – to get everyone excited before a game.

How is it for other referees in the country?

It could be better.

Less than two years ago, Scottish referee John Beaton was headbutted by a player in a bad-tempered derby match between Al Hilal and Al Nasr. Beaton, who showed three red cards during the game, was given an armed security guard for the remainder of his stay in the country.

Then there was this reported case of a referee being attacked by players during a match between two high-school teams.

That lunge from No 5 at 00:16 is clearly over the top, both feet leave the floor, and he’s frankly out of control.

Still, they could have the problems of the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where the league just sanctioned 47 players for sporting ‘unethical hairstyles’. And sometimes the referees come under fire from the club officials.

Of course, in bordering Kuwait there was a case of a referee fighting back when he felt too much pressure from players.

After being harangued and pulled by players for the defending team after a penalty decision, the referee snapped and just cold-cocked one of them. Cue bedlam.

Clattenburg will be hoping not to see these sorts of incidents cross over into the Saudi League, whatever his new role entails him doing.

The heat

Oh, it could be worse.

Temperatures rise to the high-30s Celsius at either end of the season, in August and in May. However, the winters are much warmer, more accommodating to the any aching joints that aging officials and players might be enduring.

A Saudi man leads camels near the city of Tabuk, some 1500km northwest of the capital Riyadh
A Saudi man leads camels near the city of Tabuk, some 1500km northwest of the capital Riyadh CREDIT: MOHAMED HWAITY/AFP/GETTY

The referees can also bear in mind that they have 10 months in which to officiate only 26 matches – so, plenty of time for recuperation between gigs if the heat does get the better of them.

Will he actually do any refereeing?

A statement from the Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) was not clear what role Clattenburg has actually agreed to take up in Saudi Arabia, but his unveiling at a press conference in the country offered more clues.

Tl;dw: enter Clattenburg at 39:55.

المؤتمر الصحفي لسعادة رئيس الأستاذ عادل بن محمد عزت https://www.periscope.tv/w/a3RJCDFlUkt4cVJEeEpQand8MU1ZeE5MYWRndnBHd64JPT19Z0lK2YjR2H5NUWj7QYGwhfqX7y8Z-TdGQR9L 

الاتحاد السعودي @saudiFF

المؤتمر الصحفي لسعادة رئيس #الاتحاد_السعودي_لكرة_القدم الأستاذ عادل بن محمد عزت

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Clatten burg told the assembled press: “I bring a wealth of experience and knowledge and with a passion about improving refereeing education and development here in Saudi Arabia.

“I am very humbled by this exciting opportunity to work here in Saudi Arabia, looking to support and educate the referees, [and] to use my expertise in refereeing some matches in the Jameel League.”

So, although ‘our Mark’ is talking big-picture about taking the standard of officiating to new heights in the kingdom, it’s clear he will not be hanging up his whistle just yet.

Al-Ittihad player Rabea Al-Sufyani (L) in action for the ball with Al-Wehda player Mohannad Farsi (R) during the Saudi Arabia Professional League soccer match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Wehda at King Abdullah International Stadium AlJawhra, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 28 January 2017. EPA/STR
Al-Ittihad player Rabea Al-Sufyani (L) whips the ball around Al-Wehda player Mohannad Farsi CREDIT: STR/EPA

The footballing infrastructure

Clattenburg wants to help; so what has he got to work with?

The support for football ebbs and flows in Saudi Arabia and there are big disparities between the stadia used by clubs from the top to the bottom of the Jameel League.

Although for some matches, these grand arenas can be nigh-on full, other times they can be fairly empty.

Al-Wehda fans cheer for their team during the Saudi Arabia Professional League soccer match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Wehda at King Abdullah International Stadium AlJawhra, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 28 January 2017. EPA/STR
Al-Wehda fans cheer for their team during the Jameel League match against Al-Ittihad at King Abdullah International Stadium in Jeddah CREDIT: STR/EPA

The average attendance for the league was just short of 7,000 in 2015-16 and only three teams could attain a five-figure average themselves.

Al-Ittihad enjoyed a high-water mark of 59,037, but also registered a season-low of 1,787. Al-Faisaly, who finished 10th last season, achieved an average of just 481 – and a low of 63.

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