As the eyes of the footballing world look towards the Middle East in anticipation of the first-ever winter FIFA World Cup in November 2022, the beautiful game is in the midst of an era-defining transformation in Saudi Arabia.
Before 2017, women in the Gulf kingdom were not even allowed to enter football stadiums, let alone play the sport at any organised level. However, since the announcement of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, which aims to improve diversification among other key metrics, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) has been looking at ways to improve access and opportunities for women in the sport.
In the past two years, the SAFF has established its own fully staffed Women’s Football Department, female referees are being trained through online workshops, and this September saw the announcement of the first official women’s 11-a-side league – a separate entity from the Women’s Football League competition created by the Saudi’s Sports For All Federation last year.
As the new league is rolled out in the coming months, training programmes will be set up for girls and women of various age groups to encourage participation, as well as the addition of 1,000 regional players, which will feed into the country’s first women’s national team, managed by former German midfielder Monika Staab.
And the establishment of the women’s game is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the progressive changes rolled out by the SAFF. For the first time in Saudi football history, an independent players’ association is being formed to give professional footballers a representative and democratic union to safeguard and promote their interests.
This new Saudi players’ association is a combined effort between SAFF, the Saudi Pro League and a player’s steering group headed up by the country’s 2018 World Cup captain, Osama Hawsawi. Building on an initiative launched by FIFPRO and the World Leagues Forum, it’s wrapped up with a memorandum of understanding, agreeing in principle the formal framework for players to make their voices heard.
Underpinning many of the changes happening within the SAFF is De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) graduate Barry Lysaght, who studied for his Sports Law LLM while working at FIFA in Zurich.
The 38-year-old from County Meath, Ireland, joined the SAFF as its Director of Legal and Governance Affairs in September 2020. His first 12-months have been busy reviewing and amending existing legal regulations in the midst of the ambitious reforms put forward by the organisation under the leadership of its president, Yasser Almisehal.
Disciplinary, ethics, dispute resolution and players’ status regulations, as well as SAFF’s own governing statutes, have all undergone comprehensive review from Barry and his team of 14 lawyers to make sure that the rights of all parties, including access to justice and due process, are properly protected at all stages.
“There’s a real desire to make the SAFF one of the leading football federations in the world,” Barry said. “From the legal side, it’s my role to ensure our regulations are not only in alignment with international best practice and FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) requirements, but also to go beyond those minimum standards and deliver regulatory innovations wherever appropriate.
“As a federation, we are at a hugely ambitious and progressive moment in our history. This can be seen through the extensive regulatory improvements which we have put in place to modernise our statutes, update our regulations or developing player pathways, academies and grassroots opportunities for young girls and boys on the football side.
“I was very excited to participate in laying the legal groundwork for the creation of Saudi Arabia’s first-ever independent Professional Footballers’ Association - it’s a really historic step. When the Association is finally constituted, there will – for the first time ever – be a formal structure in which players’ voices can be represented in much the same way as a union represents its members.
“This is just one of many changes that SAFF has embraced and goes a long way to show our commitment to international best practice. These developments build on the extensive improvements which the Legal team has made to our players’ status regulations, which now include the obligation for clubs and players to use new mandatory standardised player contracts.
“These new standard form contracts aim to strike a fairer balance between the interests of clubs and professional players, reduce the scope for dispute by providing greater legal certainty and deliver enhanced natural justice protections for both parties.
“We also removed restrictions on the free movement of amateur footballers within the Kingdom. Although the changes were extensive, the SAFF Board backed them in their entirety - which I think speaks volumes about the leadership’s vision and commitment to change.
“As SAFF further establishes the women’s game in Saudi Arabia, we are creating purpose-built football academies – the first of which opened recently – for young girls to have a clear route into the professional game.
“SAFF is also creating a brand-new women’s futsal league which is set to be rolled out soon, in addition to the launch of our national women’s football league. By incorporating and developing women’s competitions under SAFF’s regulatory authority in this way, female players and their clubs will stand to benefit from all the improved protections and advantages that have been secured through our amended regulations.”
DMU has been intrinsic in Barry’s journey to the Middle East, despite him having never set foot in Leicester. Having been admitted on to the Roll of Lawyers from the Law Society of Ireland, Barry decided to pursue a post-graduate qualification in the hopes of getting close to his passion for football.
He turned to the university in 2011 and started studying online for a PG Cert in Sports Law while working full time in Dublin. Having that qualification under his belt enabled Barry to secure a job at Swim Ireland in the newly established complaints and disciplinary officer role.
It was just one year later when the opportunity to land a dream job working with FIFA came about. Equipped with his specialism in sports law, Barry swapped his native Ireland for Zurich.
Barry said: “The flexibility of DMU’s course really appealed to me. When I started looking to further my education and break into sports law, the best fit – and certainly the one with the best reputation – was DMU.
“As I was based outside the UK and working full-time, distance learning allowed me to dip my toe into what sports law was all about. The course was made easier for me by the university as they could quickly ship the materials out and I could submit my work over email and online way before it became the norm.”
After establishing himself at FIFA, Barry returned to DMU to study online and convert his PG Cert for the full Masters of Law in Sports Law in 2016.
Utilising his knowledge from his role at FIFA, he not only graduated with a first in his Masters but also scooped the Sky Sports Prize for best sports law student dissertation for his in-depth analysis of the application of Article 19bis of FIFA’s regulations on the status and transfer of players to the phenomenon of ‘private academies’.
Barry’s thesis (which he subsequently converted into an article that was featured as the central ‘Special Report’ in Football Legal) analyses the lack of effective regulation surrounding the transfer of minor players to and from so-called ‘private academies’ (i.e. football academies without legal, financial or de facto links to a football club) as these organisations become an increasingly major player in world football.
“It’s strange that I started studying at DMU in Ireland, finished in Zurich and didn’t once step foot in Leicester, but the support offered to me by the university was second to none.”
“The university offering remote learning enabled me to pick up studying for my master’s four years later while continuing to work. There was a weird moment when in one of the DMU reading lists I spotted an article of mine that had been published during my time at FIFA, which filled me with a momentary burst of pride – before giving way to a little embarrassment!
“I was also able to use that experience of working in FIFA to put together my dissertation. I was pursuing this angle that hadn’t been explored too much before as there wasn’t much written - by FIFA or anyone else - on this issue of ‘private academies’ at the time. I used the support of my tutors to bounce ideas around and they were great in supporting the direction I took with my research and analysis. It then went on to win the award, which was very unexpected and a fantastic feeling. A lovely end to my time at DMU.
“Current travel restrictions may cause some students to think twice about furthering their studies, but, thanks to the easy access to online learning provided by DMU, that never stood in the way for me. I could access all the materials online and if I had any questions, I could just send them in by email or set up a call with my tutor and the feedback was always helpful.
“I would certainly recommend distance learning if you can structure your working life around your studies. Balancing a full-time job and studying for a Masters does of course require discipline at times but the rewards – like getting to work at the heart of the beautiful game - are worth that initial sacrifice.”
Distance learning is offered by DMU across a range of subject areas including law, human resources, pharmaceutics, youth work, cyber security, engineering and more.
Students studying on a distance learning course will still achieve the same qualifications as they would undertaking regular campus-based study and many of the courses are accredited at different levels including a master’s, diploma and PG Cert.
Posted on Friday 22nd October 2021