Interview: Belgian Van Winckel spearheads a Saudi football revolution

By Samindra Kunti

June 10 – A year has passed since Jan Van Winckel took up the role of Technical Director at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF). This mild-mannered Belgian rarely gives interviews, but in an exclusive interview with Insideworldfootball, Van Winckel opens up about his new role as he strives to reform football in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

Last August, Van Winckel set about perhaps his biggest football challenge career to date with the zeal and meticulousness that has been a hallmark of his career. He set about drafting a “Master Plan” for Saudi football that would ultimately decentralize the domestic game.

Van Winckel graduated from the University of Leuven with a Masters in Physical Education and Business Economics. He remains a faculty member at the Movement Control & Neuroplasticity Research Group, which is led by his mentor, Prof. Dr. Werner Helsen. In the years since, Van Winckel has held various positions at Olympique de Marseille, Club Brugge, Al-Hilal, OH Leuven, Al-Ahli, and the UAE. He currently holds a UEFA Pro License.

Jan’s greatest achievements have always been discreet and away from the limelight. Together with Michel Sablon and Bob Browaeys, he was at the heart of Belgium’s footballing renaissance. At Olympique de Marseille, Van Winckel acted as Marcelo Bielsa’s right hand and de facto assistant,  and he developed a profound admiration for the Argentine coach.


How would you sum up your first year in Saudi Arabia?

I’m very pleased. We’ve already received praise from FIFA and the AFC, but I realise we still have a long way to go. It’s no secret that football has barely developed in Saudi Arabia over the past 20 years. Fortunately, H.R.H. Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz, who owns a stake in Sheffield United and is a kind of ‘Minister of Sports’, understands that you need a stable foundation.

Both Germany and Belgium transformed their football after poor performances at the 2000 European Championships. Some 14 years later, Germany were world champions again, and a year later, Belgium became the world’s number-one team. This shows the amount of time it takes to get real results. It can feel like a thankless task sometimes, because the results are not always tangible in the short term. What’s more, look at what is happening to Michel Sablon, Werner Helsen and Bob Browaeys, who were the architects of Belgium’s current footballing success. At a point when Belgian football is flourishing, other people are ready to take the limelight and bask in the glory. As John F. Kennedy once said, ‘Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.’

Fortunately for Saudi Arabia, H.R.H. Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad is a true visionary. Rather than look for quick, short-term gains, he is happy to pave the way for the next generation. Also, the Chairman and General-Secretary, Ahmed Eid-Al Harbi and Ahmed Al-Khamis, provide critical and unconditional support to the technical commission, respecting and executing its decisions. I realise not every technical director can avail of such tools. Hence if I fail, I will be the only one responsible.

Marcelo Bielsa and Olympique de Marseille

How did your time with Marcelo Bielsa at Marseille change your professional philosophy? 

Working with Bielsa obviously changed my vision of player development. I have been lucky to work with a number of top coaches, but my time with Bielsa was unique in the sense that the process rather than the result was key. I often watched our games with a sense of disbelief, because watching one of Bielsa’s games is like listening to Beethoven’s ninth symphony. It’s just so perfect and harmonious that it becomes genius. I believe Bielsa is the best coach in the world in terms of methodology and didacticism. He is a genius akin to Michelangelo and Van Gogh. If he one day publishes his training methodology, and I sincerely hope he will, it will be the best footballing manual ever. I hope he leaves this legacy to football.

You left Marseille at the start of the season. Did you continue to follow the club’s progress?

Naturally. I streamed every match live. It was, without doubt, a disappointing season. The passion was gone. I don’t know what is happening internally there anymore, and I can’t really say much about that anyway, but the poor season surprised me. Marseille is all about passion, both in the club and the city, but the chemistry wasn’t there.

Chairman Vincent Labrune was often criticized, rightfully so?

I try to judge objectively, and I can honestly say that Labrune pulled off many excellent transfers. He attracted Benjamin Mendy, Giannelli Imbula, Mario Lemina, Michy Batshuayi, and Florin Thauvin for relatively low fees. They all have the potential to become world-class players, but Marseille lacks the environment to develop and nurture top young talent. Everything in Marseille is aimed towards letting the “established stars” function, the players that both Eric Gerets and Didier Deschamps had at their disposal. This explains why players like André-Pierre Gignac, Andre Ayew, and Dimitri Payet excelled at l’OM. They were able to handle the pressure of playing for Marseille. The younger talent did shine under Bielsa, but as soon as he left, they declined. Marseille can’t match the financial prowess of PSG and Monaco, but it can follow the lead of clubs like Barcelona, Ajax, Manchester United (under Alex Ferguson), and Porto, where over half of the youth players are produced in their own academies. At Marseille, the number is close to zero. I don’t believe a club can consistently succeed in the long term without homegrown players.

Master Plan

Can you explain the pillars of your Master Plan? Or is this confidential?

Sure I can – we don’t have secrets. Two months ago, I attended a FIFA course in Dubai for the further training of technical directors. I distributed a copy of the Master Plan to my colleagues there. We share our knowledge with other countries in the region and work together closely to further develop football in the region. The first pillar of the Master Plan is coach education, basically developing the Saudi coach. Local coaches will develop football, and through them, we will pass our vision on to the players. Last month, Crown Prince H.R.H. Mohamed Bin Salman said it was not oil, gold, or uranium but rather the Saudi people that constitute the wealth of Saudi Arabia. I share this belief. First and foremost, we must invest in the development of our coaches, because they, not me, will convey the federation’s vision and build up football in Saudi Arabia. I am merely passing through.

This year, in a few months, we will have doubled the number of licensed coaches, and next year, we will train another thousand new coaches. We want to achieve this with our own Saudi people. We had a single instructor before, but this month, we trained 25 new AFC instructors. These will be in charge of the coaching course next year, which will not only be held in Riyadh and Jeddah but also remote areas such as Baathen, Tubouk, and Najraan.

What’s more, a number of other projects are crucial in the execution of the Master Plan. We are working full speed towards the decentralization of football. Next year, we will start a regional competition in 24 districts. Regional technical directors have been appointed for the southern, western, northern, and eastern regions, with each supervising six districts. In turn, each district will be under the care of a district technical manager. Every two weeks, the best players will gather for training sessions under the supervision of the Technical Department. Another pillar in our Master Plan is the flexible mobility of youth players. This will guarantee the free movement of talented players to better academies. This will be coupled with a certification system for academies.

The principle is quite simple: a youth player has the fundamental right to move to a better youth academy. When a club has a good youth academy, some simple, transparent rules will enable the club to attract talented players. The ‘mother club/ will then be entitled to remuneration through different mechanisms, such as training compensation.

There are very few young players in the Saudi Professional League?

Yes that’s true. We are working on a better integration of talented players into the first team, such as in the post-formation or professional-development phase. Last week we organised a workshop with the clubs of the Pro League. Starting from 2017, clubs will be offered the opportunity to participate with a B-team (with U24 players) in the league, and we made it possible for players in a youth academy to play in the first team at any given time. You might think this is something obvious, but it was impossible until this season.  There are also a number of other, less grand projects, some 153 in total, such as national coaches day, awards for Saudi coaches, the organization of Futsal, talent days, and plenty more.

Saudi footballing DNA

You stress the need for more training hours for youth players and better mental development. Have you made any progress in these areas?

Increasing the numbers of training hours is certainly paramount. We set up a project with the Ministry of Education that makes it possible for every club to train players in the morning during school hours as part of a day-release program. Talented players will train under the supervision of the national youth team coaches rather than taking regular physical education classes in school. It’s a win-win situation for everyone: the schools, the clubs, the players, and the federation.

But that is not enough. At this moment, I estimate we are 15 years behind Germany, Spain, and Belgium. We can emulate them, but we can’t just copy and paste. We need to predict how football will be played in 15 years. For example, high-intensity efforts will probably double, quick decision-making will be more important, and players will need to be mentally strong. Concentrating for the full 90 minutes for example is trainable, yet it rarely happens today. Development of the mental aspect (concentration, leadership, winning attitude, personality) hasn’t yet been cultivated.

We are also working on a national curriculum with a Saudi footballing DNA. We interviewed 150 Saudi coaches and asked them what they thought the Saudi DNA was. We then wrote a draft based on this. The mental aspect will play a key role, as will individual development. Players will be supervised individually to an even greater extent and developed in relation to their outfield positions. Einstein once said, “All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.” We should help players develop individually through guided discovery. Involve them in the learning process. It will enhance their conceptual understanding of the game.

What about the focus on results, the specific selection of “big players,” and the related problem of the relative-age effect.

We are trying to reduce the impact of the relative-age effect by creating future teams for late-maturing players, as well as launching an awareness campaign. So, in our recent coaches’ magazines, we dedicated space to the problem. This way, we try to raise awareness among clubs about how they should be investing in high-potentials rather than just the high-performers in their youth academies.

What other structural changes have been implemented at the club and national levels? 

The most important change has been the decentralization of the game. We have devolved the game to the different regions through the appointment of 24 district managers and 4 regional managers. These new districts were conceived in a very pragmatic way. The idea is that parents should be able to travel by car to see their children play within an educational context. At the moment, players still need to take a flight to play in a match. This is not sustainable, and it places excessive pressure on players. We need to bring football back to basics.

We will also allow private academies to participate in these competitions, even if they field foreign players. This is important, because these private academies have successfully organized youth training and education without subsidies from the government. They are not independent on government funding. Our clubs have been reliant on government money for too long. Supporting 170 clubs financially is not feasible in the long term, so we need to reduce the number of clubs being funded, increase the number of amateur clubs and make some new rules for supporting private clubs.

Did you encounter any specific difficulties when decentralizing football?

Yes, obviously there are a number of challenges to decentralization in Saudi Arabia. In Belgium, it’s really easy to organize football. You only need drive a maximum of 200 kilometers to play in a game. In Saudi Arabia, however, there’s a club in the South that has no other clubs within a 200-kilometer radius. Uruguay is another interesting example. In relative terms, Uruguay, with its 3.7 million inhabitants, is probably the best footballing country in the world. We interviewed Uruguayan coaches as part of the Master Plan. It was striking that they focus solely on the capital Montevideo with its 1.8 million inhabitants. We considered this model for some time, limiting our focus to the capital Riyadh (7 million inhabitants), Jeddah (3.5 million inhabitants), and the Eastern Region (4.1 million inhabitants). It was an interesting reflective exercise, but we ultimately decided to organize the game on a national basis, from Arrar on the northern border to Narjaan in the South. These are more than 2,000 kilometers apart, which is twice the distance from Brussels to Barcelona. This gives you an idea of the magnitude of the problem.

Qatar 2022

At the end of April, you met with Eric Abrams, the technical director for Australia. What did you talk about? 

Eric Abrams is not just a good friend; he is also an international authority in the field of football development. I brought him to Al-Ahli in Saudi-Arabia a couple of years ago, and I’m glad he got his chance as technical director of Australia. Eric and I share the same vision as Andy Roxburgh, the technical director of the AFC on the development of football in Asia. In April during the Youth Panel of AFC in Kuala Lumpur we mainly discussed the central role of coach education and the need to support youth academies in their development.

You also participated in the FIFA congress for technical directors in Dubai.

It was an excellent initiative by FIFA. I learned quite a lot. More importantly, there was time to sit down and talk with all the technical directors together. I don’t consider my colleagues to be competitors. We can only elevate the game to a higher level if we work together. I share everything we do at the SAFF in the hope we can raise the overall level of football in the Gulf.

Khaled Mohammed won the Nassr Al-Johar Award. Does he embody a new generation of coaches that is benefitting from the new coach-education program?  

A golden generation of coaches is on its way. Saad Al-Shehri, Khaled Mohammed Al-Atawi, and Mohammed Ameen Haidar are very young coaches, but they have the potential to develop into brilliant top coaches, both nationally and internationally. We support them on their journeys, and we will help them to develop into world-class coaches. For example, last December, Saad Al-Shehri and I travelled to Europe, where we visited clubs like Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.

For Russia 2018, Saudi Arabia was drawn in a group with Australia, Japan and the UAE. What’s your assessment of the group?

It’s a difficult but not impossible group. Saudi Arabia has a real shot at qualifying. We’ll take it game by game and try to stay calm and focused. In Asia, everything is questioned after a defeat. We shouldn’t do that.

Head coach Bert Van Marwijk has extended his contract?

We did our homework. Bert is, in my opinion, the best and the most experienced coach in our group. This is a deliberate strategy. This way, I can focus on the development of the game. This concurs with FIFA’s guideline of dissociating the senior national team from the federation’s long-term vision. Bert Van Marwijk leads the senior team together with Zaki Saleh, Faysal Badayn, Adrie Koster, and Mark van Bommel, while I focus on the future of our football.

Is Qatar 2022 the real goal?

I can say that I need 15-20 years, but that would be unfair to the Saudi people. Qatar 2022 is a realistic target, however. We will try to qualify for Russia 2018, and Van Marwijk and his staff will do their utmost in this regard. However, we need to be there in Qatar. I believe in the saying that a man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions.

Saudi Vision 2030

Is there truly a desire within the SAFF and the other stakeholders to generate a long-term vision?

It’s unique for both the Ministry of Sport (the General Sports Authority) and the federation to support the Master Plan. Recently, the Saudi government launched a very ambitious plan called “Saudi Vision 2030.” On reading the plan, I noticed how well it aligns with our Master Plan, the “Road to Qatar 2022.” There is investment in human resources, the proposition of clear targets, a framework of rules to facilitate development, increased transparency, and so on. Everyone is convinced that some things need to change, and we will succeed in bringing about this change. It’s now or never for Saudi football. When Belgium shifted its vision 15 years ago, no one would have imagined they would top the FIFA rankings, and Saudi Arabia has a much greater potential than Belgium.

Saudi Arabia has a bigger potential than Belgium. Why?

It’s clear that Saudi Arabia has double the population of Belgium. Football is the number-one sport in Saudi Arabia, and Saudis have the right morphology to excel in it. Luiz Felipe Scolari compared Saudi players to Brazilian players, and I second this. The Saudi DNA is all about creativity, which is a major advantage. In December, we visited the German FA, and they indicated that over-organisation was one of their problems. They wanted more leeway for creativity. This is a problem we don’t have, but we miss organisation in many areas. It’s our task to bring some structure to the creativity. As I said earlier, I won’t have any excuses if we don’t succeed.

Contact the writer of this story at moc.l1716765789labto1716765789ofdlr1716765789owedi1716765789sni@i1716765789tnuk.1716765789ardni1716765789mas1716765789

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