It is no surprise that the Birmingham Mail is getting excited as it reports that local giants Aston Villa are one of three clubs, along with Seville and Inter Milan, in the running to sign Luis Suarez, after Atletico Madrid announced that the Uruguayan star is leaving at the end of the current season.
The newspaper also mentions that a bid from Saudi Arabia, thought to be from Al-Shabab, has been turned down. It has had a few journalists in the Arab world and plenty of people on social media intrigued and excited.
As former teammate at Anfield Steven Gerrard is now in charge of Aston Villa, there is hope that the 1982 European champions are in with a chance to snatch his signature. But the former Liverpool and Barcelona star is now 35 and not quite the force of nature as in years gone by. He is, however, the kind of foreign star that Saudi Arabian clubs should be targeting.
There are plenty of top-class foreign players in the Saudi Professional League. The likes of Odion Ighala, Moussa Marega, Matheus Pereira, Pity Martinez, Talisca, Abderazzak Hamdallah, Omar Al-Somah, Ever Banega, Vincent Aboubakar and Leandre Tawamba, to name just a few, would be welcome in any league in Asia. These are some serious stars and there have been others over the years. After all, the mighty Brazilian legend Rivelino played for Al-Hilal in the 1970s.
Suarez would be a major attraction. There would be major interest around the world if he came to play in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam or elsewhere. The star would bring a certain notoriety too — few could forget his biting of opponents at the domestic and international stages and his famous handball to deny Ghana a place in the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup — and that would also provide a few more narratives for local journalists, commentators and fans to get their teeth stuck into.
The man himself is going to have plenty of offers but this could be a good time to tempt such stars to the country. The likes of Suarez have done pretty much all they want to do in Europe. Now his immediate focus is surely staying fit and ready for the World Cup in Qatar in November where the South Americans have been drawn with Portugal, Ghana and South Korea. What better place to prepare for such a tournament than Saudi Arabia?
The league is in the same region and has the same climate. It has fewer games than Europe and the pace of the games is a little slower but it is also more competitive and has a greater strength in depth than the Qatar Stars League. A year or two in the Middle East before a return to South America could be an ideal way to end a fine career as well as get the forward at peak readiness for the World Cup.
This season, Suarez has not been quite as integral to the plans of Diego Simeone. Of his 34 appearances in the league, 14 have come off the bench. He is no longer an automatic starter but has still managed 11 goals and is still capable of turning a game on its head in an instant. Just look at qualification for the 2022 World Cup. Uruguay finished third, 11 points behind Argentina and a massive 17 behind Brazil in first who also scored 40 goals, 18 more than La Celeste. Suarez scored more than a third of Uruguay’s total, with his eight goals equalling Neymar’s tally and outscoring Lionel Messi by one. Only Bolivia’s Marcelo Mareno managed more.
Suarez can do more than a job at the highest level. The same could be said about James Rodriguez, though there is no World Cup for the Colombian superstar. The former Real Madrid man joined Al-Rayyan in Qatar from Everton in September. The former powerhouse struggled in the league and finished in eighth, though Rodriguez recorded four goals and six assists in his 12 appearances, not a bad return at all.
There has been disquiet however at his non-appearance in the Asian Champions League group stage in April. The club says he has been injured but a number of outlets in South America say that the 30-year-old is angling for a move to Saudi Arabia with the likes of Al-Nassr interested — the Riyadh club have already shown their ambition this year in having a bid for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang turned down by Arsenal as the Gabonese goalgetter went to Barcelona instead.
There are other players who are coming out of contract and, before being tempted home, could add a little more star glamor to the SPL with the World Cup on the doorstep once again a selling point. Gareth Bale’s troubled time at Real Madrid, albeit one in which he won four European Champions League and three Spanish titles, is coming to an end. There is no way the Welshman is staying in Spain. It could be that the 32-year-old will retire from football completely but that is unlikely if Wales win their World Cup play-off in June to book a place in Qatar. Then there will be another season at least. The likes of Juan Mata and Edison Cavani, soon to be released by Manchester United, have also been linked with a move to Saudi Arabian teams.
Relying on veteran stars from European leagues should not be a major strategy for Saudi clubs but there are players out there who could do a job on and off the pitch.