RIYADH: It is a sign that a league is a significant one that when foreign players go back to their home countries for international duty, comments to their native media about the leagues where they play football and the clubs they are at make headlines around the world.
Unsurprisingly, it helps when that foreign player is Cristiano Ronaldo. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner signed for Al-Nassr at the end of December and looks to have enjoyed his time in Saudi Arabia so far, scoring nine goals in eight league games for the title-chasing club.
For the first time since arriving in Riyadh, the 38-year-old is back in Europe and preparing with Portugal for two 2024 European Championship qualifiers against Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. Given that Ronaldo moving to Mrsool Park was a huge deal, it is natural that local journalists have been asking the former Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Juventus star what the Roshn Saudi League is like.
He said: “I think you should look at the (Saudi Pro League) in a different way. I’m not going to say that the league is a Premier League, that would be a lie.
“But it’s a very competitive league that I’m positively surprised by, a very balanced league and good teams. I am sure that in the coming years the league will be ... the fourth, fifth, or sixth most competitive league in the world,” the attacker added.
It has made headlines around the world. Some newspapers and websites said that the claim was “bold,” while others talked of it being “astonishing.”
There may have been some eyebrows raised but here was one of the best players ever and currently the most famous (he has 564 million followers on Instagram, more than any other person in the world) talking in positive terms about football in Saudi Arabia. Only the biggest leagues in the world can dream of such exposure.
Cynics would say that it is in the interests of players to be complimentary of football in the country in which they play and the club that pays their salary but there is a long history of the opposite happening.
There have been many times when stars have gone home to play World Cup qualifiers and have said something negative about club coaches, team-mates, or food back in the place where they are employed.
When it upsets people back at their clubs then the time-honored excuse is that the player was misquoted or the comments were taken out of context.
Kim Min-jae, now with Napoli, once had to back track quickly when he appeared to question the level of defending among his Beijing team-mates when back home in Korea.
Obviously, the reverse is much more pleasant for coaches, team-mates, and fans to hear. Praise always goes down well. The first part of Ronaldo’s comments were clear for all to see and hard to dispute. The league is competitive.
Just look at Al-Hilal. The Blues are the most successful team in Saudi Arabian and Asian history and in February defeated the champions of Africa and South America to book a FIFA Club World Cup final with Real Madrid. The 5-3 defeat against the European giants was an exciting spectacle for fans and won respect for the losers from those watching on every continent.
Just a few days later, the Riyadh giants were booking a place in the Asian Champions League final in February with a 7-0 thrashing of Al-Duhail of Qatar in the semi-final. Al-Hilal are currently in fourth and desperately trying to stay in touch with the top three.
Al-Shabab in third, Al-Nassr in second, and Al-Ittihad, currently in pole position, are three of the top teams in Asia and there is strength going all the way down the league. Indeed, Al-Faisaly in the second tier, reached the knockout stage of the 2022 Champions League.
Whether the league could become one of the top six in the world will be seen in the future. For now, it is a matter of debate, but it is a debate that league officials would love to see happen in Europe and elsewhere. This is one of the benefits of signing famous foreign players.
There are plenty of top foreign players in Saudi Arabia who play for international teams. In the next few days, there could be four facing each other in the same game. Al-Wehda’s Abderrazak Hamdallah and Mounir Al-Mohammadi of 2022 World Cup semi-finalists Morocco will take on Brazil in a friendly on Saturday and the following Tuesday, the Atlas Lions take on Peru with Andre Carrillo of Al-Hilal and Christopher Gonzalez from Al-Adalah.
The likes of Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Hamad of Al-Ittihad are regulars for Egypt, Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu is South Korea’s No. 1, and there is also Grzegorz Krychowiak who was with Poland at the World Cup.
As more international players and coaches come to Saudi Arabia, more of them can see a thriving and competitive league with talented local players, who showed what they are made of at the World Cup, and can then go home and spread the word.