LONDON: Saudi Arabia made global headlines in the recent transfer window for the players they exported, after signing a deal with Spain’s La Liga for nine players to join clubs in the Spanish league system in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup.
While it was an intriguing deal in more ways than one, just as interesting was the movement of players heading to Saudi Arabia.
During the transfer window a trend became very obvious, with experienced North African internationals flooding into the Saudi Pro League (SPL) in record numbers.
There were four from Algeria (Abdelmoumene Djabou, Rais M’Bolhi, Nacereddine Khoualed and Ibrahim Chenihi), four from Tunisia (Ferjani Sassi, Mohamed Amine Ben Amor, Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Aymen Mathlouthi), three from Egypt (Moamen Zakaria, Saleh Gomaa and Ahmed El-Sheikh), and two from Morocco (Achraf Bencharki and Issam Erraki, although Erraki had already spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia previously).
Rarely in Asia have we seen an influx of talent from one specific region in such numbers in a single transfer window. And not just any talent, but mostly current international players at that. It seems a very deliberate strategy to position the SPL as the leading league in the MENA region.
One of the most exciting signings has been that of Moroccan young gun Achraf Bencharki, who signed for Al-Hilal last month.
The 23-year-old was instrumental in helping his Moroccan club Wydad Casablanca win last year’s CAF Champions League, with five goals in 10 matches, and has been touted as one of the most exciting players in the Arab world.
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MOROCCO — Two
TUNISIA — Seven
EGYPT — Eight
He most recently was a member of the Moroccan squad that won the African Nations Championship, scoring in the opening game against Mauritania.
With last year’s AFC Player of the Year Omar Khribin struggling with injury and Salem Al-Dawsari one of the nine players loaned to Spanish clubs, he arrives at an opportune time for him to show exactly what he can do, and lead the line for an Al-Hilal side sitting four points clear on top spot.
Suddenly the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular, has become the destination of choice for a lot of North Africa’s best talent, most of whom have aspirations of playing at this year’s World Cup.
Take Tunisia as an example.
Of their most recent squad that played against Libya in World Cup qualification in November, five now play in Saudi Arabia, while Youssef Msakni plays in Qatar. Two further players, recently selected for the national team but not in the squad for the match against Libya, also play in the Kingdom.
It is conceivable that seven of Tunisia’s 23-man squad for this year’s World Cup could be based in Saudi Arabia.
The story is similar when you look at other nations across North Africa.
Algeria potentially have two players based in Saudi Arabia, while Morocco have two in Saudi Arabia and four in total across the Gulf, including vice-captain Mbark Boussoufa at UAE champions Al-Jazira.
But most intriguing is the case of Egypt.
The Pharaohs, playing at their first World Cup since 1990, captured the attention of the world with their dramatic qualification thanks to the late penalty from Liverpool superstar Mohamed Salah against the Congo.
While Salah will be the name on everyone’s lips come June, he will be ably supported by a cast of up to eight playing their club football in Saudi Arabia, a fascinating narrative given the two nations meet in Volgograd on June 25 in the final match in Group A — a match likely to determine the fate of both nations at the tournament.
Africa’s fifth representative at the World Cup, Nigeria, may not feature any players in the Gulf, but they have two — captain Jon Obi Mikel and former Watford star Odion Ighalo — playing in China, highlighting the ever-growing shift in world football toward Asia.
Whereas in tournaments previous the number of players playing in Asia (from non-Asian nations) was relatively low — eight being the highest figure in 2006 — that number is set to skyrocket this year with potentially as many as 25 players, the majority of whom will be from Saudi Arabia.
While naturally most attention in Saudi Arabia will be on the 23 men in green and white, they will not be the only players representing Saudi Arabia on the global stage come June and July.