Saudi Arabia has some of the most exciting foreign imports of any league in Asia, with prolific goalscorers, silky playmakers and solid defenders spread across the competition.
That has not always been the case when it comes to goalkeepers, partly because of a 25-year-ban on outside custodians that was only revoked ahead of the 2017-18 season. Many teams have been making up for lost time however and it could well be the case that no less than 15 out of 16 teams will start the new season with an outsider between the sticks. This summer alone, 11 have signed new foreign keepers.
That has repercussions for the national team as we will see later but it also means that Saudi Arabia is a little unusual in Asia. Some leagues in the continent don’t allow them at all, such as South Korea. Japan does but clubs there tend to limit their imports to a handful of Koreans and an occasional Australian. Saudi Arabia is, however, one of the few places where there are showstoppers from more far-flung locations.
Al-Nassr recently signed one of the best-known goalkeepers likely to play in Asia and certainly one who has the highest international profile at the moment. David Ospina was Napoli’s number one last season before his contract ended and the Colombian, who has made over 100 appearances for the South American country, has also spent time in the English Premier League with Arsenal. His arrival this summer was a real coup for the Riyadh giants.
There is another goalkeeper with significant international experience in the capital. Kim Seung-gyu has played at world and Asian cups with South Korea and is the country’s number one heading into the tournament in Qatar. The 31-year-old has extensive experience playing for big clubs in his homeland — having won the AFC Champions League with Ulsan Horangi back in 2021 — as well as Japan. A good shotstopper who comes out of his area well, there is already plenty of interest back in East Asia as to how Kim performs in Saudi Arabia. If there are no communication issues with his teammates then there is no reason why Kim can’t become a major success at Al-Shabab and help the club challenge once again.
Then there is Marcelo Grohe at Al-Ittihad. The Brazilian is preparing for his fourth season in Jeddah and has earned plenty of plaudits in that time. Last season, the 35-year-old was excellent at times as the Tigers went on a winning spree that looked set to deliver a first league title since 2009. There were a couple of mistakes when the pressure was on in the run-in but it looks as if new coach Nuno Espirito Santo is going to stick with the South American.
Ittihad won’t forget Martin Campana in a hurry as they drew 0-0 with Al-Batin in the final match of last season partly because the Uruguayan was in such good form. The result meant that the Tigers lost all chance of the championship and also kept Al-Batin in the top flight. There is more Latin influence as Al-Taawoun have signed highly rated Brazilian keeper Mailson from Sport Recife, and Al-Tai have Victor Braga.
Newly promoted teams have also taken the foreign route. Al-Adalah have Montenegro’s Milan Mijatovic while Al-Khaleej have signed another Brazilian in Douglas Friedrich. There is also Arab representation. Gabaski’s move from Egyptian giants Zamalek to Al-Nassr may not have happened and Algerian international Rais M’Bolhi may have left Al-Ettifaq (and been replaced by Brazil’s Paulo Victor) but there is still Moustapha Zeghba who had a great season with Damac last time around.
Another new African presence is Devis Epassy, the Cameroon international joining Abha over the summer. Then there is Vladimir Stojkovic, the Serbian who kept out Al-Hilal last season to help Al-Feiha win the King’s Cup and fellow Europeans in Silviu Lung of Romania at Al-Raed and Sweden’s Jacob Rinne at Al-Fateh.
National team coach Herve Renard will be happy that Al-Hilal are not only the best team in Asia but also have no foreign goalkeepers. Abdullah Al-Mayouf has been the most consistent Saudi Arabian goalkeeper in recent years and played all but one game last season for the Saudi and Asian champions.
For Al-Hilal, the 35-year-old has kept Mohammed Al-Owais on the bench but Al-Owais was the go-to guy for World Cup qualification. With Kim’s arrival at Al-Shabab pushing Fawaz Al-Qarni onto the bench, there are not many options for Renard to choose from when it comes to selecting his squad for the World Cup.
If one or two of the new influx of goalkeepers struggle to adapt to life in the Saudi Professional League, it could be to the benefit of the national team.
With so few local goalkeepers playing week in, week out, anyone who can get some minutes on the pitch and get some clean sheets under his belt is sure to catch the eye of Renard. As it stands, while it will be fascinating to see how some of the foreign contingent perform, the locals have to try and do whatever they can to compete.