In the two years since Uros Matic signed for Abha, the Saudi Pro League has experienced some monumental changes.
The Serbian midfielder, brother of ex-Manchester United and Chelsea star Nemanja Matic, has been part of an upward trajectory that shows no signs of abating — with further big investment in high-profile signings expected this summer.
While Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Al-Nassr understandably grabbed global headlines, Matic was convinced of the league’s potential for growth long before the Portuguese icon landed in Riyadh.
Having played across a host of European Leagues with the likes of FC Copenhagen and Sturm Graz, as well as in the Champions League with Azerbaijani giants Qarabag, Matic was drawn to the Kingdom in 2021.
He told Arab News: “I had been interested in the region for a long time. I could see that Saudi football was getting bigger and I was happy to agree terms with Abha. I think it was a good choice.
“I have made a lot of friends here — I’ve found the Saudi people to be really friendly and of course the food is fantastic.
“There are a few challenges of course – Saudi Arabia is a huge country and every time we play away, we need to fly, so you sometimes spend all day in the plane. But this is a small sacrifice for the end result of playing at good stadiums against good teams. I am enjoying it.”
One of those good teams is Al-Nassr, now led by the talismanic Ronaldo. Matic and Abha faced them back-to-back in March, succumbing 3-1 in the King’s Cup quarter-final before a late capitulation saw Roel Coumans’ side narrowly lose 2-1 in the league four days later.
Similar to the Saudi Pro League’s players, Matic recognizes the pivotal nature of Ronaldo’s move in terms of the country’s football evolution and is delighted that his time in the Kingdom has coincided with the Portuguese superstar.
Matic said: “I was really happy when Cristiano came because it’s good for all of Saudi football, for all of the players who play here.
“The league changed instantly — a lot of people now want to watch Saudi football and you can see how many TV stations bought the rights to stream Saudi football. He has raised the level and now the whole world is watching the Saudi Pro League.”
During the most recent international break, Ronaldo made the bold claim that Saudi Arabia would be home to one of the world’s top-five leagues before long. While many baulked, Matic agrees with the sentiment.
“I think Cristiano is right. Why can’t the Saudi Pro League become one of the best in the world? The government support for sport is clearly there and sport is the biggest ambassador for each country. I think this is the future. If they continue like this with a long-term plan then yes, they can compete with the best in the world.
“Since I came two years ago a lot of new players came from big clubs, from big leagues – you can see a lot of good players in the league. I think compared to Europe, the Saudi Pro League is already in the Top 10 in the world.
“It surprised me that before Ronaldo, the world didn’t really know that much about Saudi football, because the quality is really high,” he added.
Ronaldo is the latest in a line of talented players that Matic has played with or against in his career, with the time he spent at Benfica with Argentina legend Pablo Aimar having a particularly lasting impact.
“I had the pleasure to share the pitch with Aimar and truly he was amazing. He was (Lionel) Messi’s idol so that alone tells you the kind of qualities he has,” Matic said.
Among his current team-mates, Matic counts Cameroon goalkeeper Devis Epassy and ex-Manchester City midfielder Felipe Caicedo as close friends and has been impressed with the impact the latter has had on the young Saudi players at Abha.
“Felipe is a really good example for the team and the younger players really have someone to look up to in him. He has had a great career at Lazio, Espanyol, and Manchester City. Having this kind of experience makes him a very valuable player to have at the club,” he added.
With the Saudi Pro League likely to welcome more new arrivals from Europe this summer, could a particularly familiar face be set to join Matic in the Kingdom?
His brother Nemanja has been an integral part of Roma’s push for Europa League glory and Champions League qualification this season since joining from Manchester United last year. The midfielder has already had his one-year contract automatically extended by the Giallorossi, though the junior Matic sibling would not rule anything out.
Matic said: “I would be really happy if Nemanja joined the Saudi league next season. I don’t know how interested he is but for sure if he made the choice to come here, he would not regret it because the league is really good, and I think he could enjoy his time here.”