RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League announced on Tuesday a new strategy, in alignment with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch, with an emphasis on fostering young Saudi talent, alongside the best internationally, and improving governance of all clubs for long-term success.
Amongst a number of new regulations and initiatives to be revealed ahead of the new season, the SPL will increase the playing time of young Saudi players in the league by reducing the age of eligibility from 18 to 16 for 2023-2024.
A further step focused on youth development will see the reduction of squad sizes from the current number of 35 players overall to 25 senior players, with the remaining 10 squad members all having to be under the age of 21, from the 2025-2026 season.
The new SPL strategy will provide a robust and clear pathway for young Saudi players, and help bridge the progress from youth team football within the federation’s current player development system into the top tier of the country’s football league.
By the start of the 2026-2027 season, the SPL has also announced a mandate for clubs to include eight “homegrown” players, who are graduates of the club academies, within their main roster of 25 squad players, of whom four would be direct graduates from the club’s system.
In a further effort to create elite squads that combine exciting up-and-coming young Saudi talent with world-class international players and role models, the SPL has launched a new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence led by Michael Emenalo, who joins the league as the new director of football with immediate effect.
All clubs have been fully briefed on the PACE process for international transfers and are actively working with Emenalo.
The former Nigerian international is best known for 10 years of success at Chelsea where, as technical director, he overhauled all aspects of football operations. Under his guidance, he revolutionized the club’s scouting, recruitment, development, and loan systems.
Emenalo will lead PACE and start assisting with squad mapping and player care. He will be responsible for providing a centralized approach to transfers and help give all clubs the best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, and yet sustainable future.
Saad Allazeez, SPL’s interim CEO and vice chairman, said: “The Saudi Pro League has an incredible and vital opportunity to help fulfill the country’s football ambitions and inspire more of our people into football and sport.
“From next season, the SPL will become younger and more competitive, taking advantage of the groundwork the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has been putting in at the grassroots for many years.
“The new strategy also sees the Saudi Pro League take a central, elevated role in supporting and developing clubs through its Club Framework business unit, and by initiating PACE will provide and centrally implement checks and balances in dealings on the international transfer market.
“There is much potential for new talent arriving in Saudi Arabia, and a central function providing control and strong governance will ensure our investments are smart and benefit all in the league moving forward.
“Every club in the Saudi Pro League will get the opportunity to improve their squad through this innovative new model, and Michael is the perfect man for the job. He has the ideal pedigree, knowledge, experience, coaching qualifications, and contacts to drive value and success for the overall league through this ambitious project.
“The steps taken through PACE are part of a bigger plan and strategy that will be announced to improve the league and make it a world-class experience and product that engages globally and is competitive and sustainable in the long term, as one of the very best leagues in the world. This will be good for all football, good for all players, and good for all fans.”
Allazeez said that the strategy “has been years in the making and has involved a lot of global footballing expertise to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity for growth.”
Allazeez added: “It goes far beyond and much deeper than the player transfers that are dominating headlines, and focuses just as much on what happens off the pitch at the clubs.
“We are looking to the long term and will be judged on that, especially with helping the clubs become commercially successful with robust business models.
“The Club Development Program will also activate the fair play financial system, and monitor compliance with local and Asian licensing standards. We look forward to rolling out the full strategy in the coming months.”
Emenalo said: “I believe this is a role that I’ve spent the last 45 years preparing for. It was not a difficult role or offer to accept. I am intrigued by the audacity of the project and the ambition.
“This project has been in the making for a while. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision, it’s well thought out. I’m impressed by the knowledge and input that’s gone into this. The Saudi Pro League offers a new opportunity first and foremost for the entire industry and I think will create avenues for good competition and for more development of young talent.”
The new SPL strategy builds upon the existing player pathway unveiled as part of Tactics for Tomorrow, which was introduced in 2021 by the SAFF and has since witnessed massive investment in time and resources.
Funding in Saudi youth football has increased by 162 percent since 2021, and 23 regional training centers have been established and opened.
The number of registered male players has increased by 58 percent and the number of coaches has risen from 750 in 2018 to over 5,500 in 2023, of which more than 1,000 are female.
As a result, every high-potential Saudi footballer is now tracked and has a comprehensive plan, starting from the age of 6 through to turning professional.
SAFF President Yasser Al-Misehal said: “At the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia gave a glimpse of what we are capable of at the international level, and demonstrated the quality of our domestic league, the SPL.
“But equally, if not more pleasing, was our victory in the U-23 AFC Asian Cup without conceding a goal.
“The future is bright, and a lot of good thinking has gone into advancing football in Saudi Arabia, men’s and women’s.
“As you can see, everyone is on the same page. There is a very clear and connected pathway. Yes, we want a league to be proud (of), to entertain local fans and the world, but it has to serve the ambitions of the national team now and in the future. It has to be for the good of the game. That means a commitment to youth and the new strategy and regulations demonstrate just that.”
The full new strategy, including PACE and the Club Framework business unit, will go live ahead of the 2023-2024 season.