Saudi Pro League announces new strategy, appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football

Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
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Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
Saad Allazeez, SPL Interim CEO and Vice Chairman. supplied
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Saad Allazeez, SPL Interim CEO and Vice Chairman. supplied
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Updated 18 July 2023

Saudi Pro League announces new strategy, appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football

Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League. supplied
  • Plans align and build upon youth development program, regulations to be implemented during 2023-2024 season
  • SPL appoints Michael Emenalo as director of football to lead new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence
  • Innovative model gives clubs best possible expertise, governance to drive sustainability

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.

Al-Nassr to feature in historic first edition of AFC Women’s Champions League in 2024/25

Al-Nassr to feature in historic first edition of AFC Women’s Champions League in 2024/25
Updated 15 June 2024

Al-Nassr to feature in historic first edition of AFC Women’s Champions League in 2024/25

Al-Nassr to feature in historic first edition of AFC Women’s Champions League in 2024/25
  • The Riyadh-based club become first Saudi Arabian female team to compete in the region’s top women’s club competition
  • Al-Nassr among 22 sides to feature in new-look competition, kicks off with preliminary group stage in August

RIYADH: The Asian Football Confederation has announced that Al-Nassr FC are set to represent Saudi Arabia in the inaugural edition of the AFC Women’s Champions League in the forthcoming 2024/25 season. 

Al-Nassr won the 2023/24 Women’s Premier League to qualify for the new tournament, with the draw for the preliminary rounds to take place at the AFC House in July. The draw will determine the groups for the opening matches, which are set to take place from Aug. 25-31.

Al-Nassr are the first Saudi women’s side to compete in the region’s top club competition, which boasts 22 teams from AFC’s top-ranked nations, including Japan, Australia, North Korea, and China. 

The team’s qualification showcases the remarkable growth of women’s football in the Kingdom in recent years. It follows the formation of the first women’s national team in 2021 and the first professional women’s league in 2022.

The AFC also confirmed that Saudi Arabia would host one group in the preliminary stages of the competition, marking the second occasion that the Kingdom has hosted a professional women’s football event following the successful West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship.

This is the icing on the cake for women’s football in the Kingdom, following the conclusion of the second season of the Women’s Premier League.

Hosting the opening rounds will add to Saudi Arabia’s legacy as a global hub for international sporting events, with over 25 major football showcases held in the Kingdom in recent years. 

Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said: “The fact that Al-Nassr will be competing in the first edition of the AFC Women’s Champions League is a proud moment for Saudi Arabian football, as we achieve another important football milestone in our transformational journey.

“We hope that this will keep inspiring a new generation of girls to engage with the sport.”

SAFF’s Vice President Lamia Bahaian said: “The speed of the journey to reach the pinnacle of women’s club football in Asia is breathtaking.

“Women’s football in the Kingdom is supported at every level but is only possible thanks to the skill, commitment and determination of all the players and coaches in the league.

“We all share in the excitement of this moment. For Saudi Arabia, this is more than just competing. This is a wonderful opportunity to connect, host and learn from the very best in the continent and we will welcome that with open arms. Our journey continues.”

Sara Khalid, the goalkeeper for the Saudi Arabian national women’s team and Al-Nassr, said: “It’s an incredible feeling to have qualified for the first edition of the AFC Women’s Champions League. This moment is a testament to not only the work of everyone at Al-Nassr to support us in our recent successful season, but from everyone within the Kingdom to help us grow the game in our country to this level.”

Women’s football in Saudi Arabia has seen an 86 percent increase in participation within the sport since 2021, with more than 70,000 girls of school age now playing football across the Kingdom.

European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses

European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses
Updated 14 June 2024

European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses

European experience will benefit Saudi’s Future Falcons, say Valencia bosses
  • La Liga club’s Technical Director Miguel Angel Corona and academy Director Luis Martinez spoke to Arab News about the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh, developing Saudi talent and Valencia’s football methodology

VALENCIA: In January 2023, La Liga club Valencia, as the previous season’s Copa del Rey runner-up, participated in the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh.

A fine performance against Real Madrid in the first semifinal at King Fahd International Stadium saw them earn a 1-1 draw in normal time before exiting after a 4-3 penalty shootout.

It was a chance for Saudi Arabia audiences to watch up close one of Spain’s more successful clubs of the 21st century.

“It was a great experience, of course,” Valencia Technical Director Miguel Angel Corona said, during Arab News’ visit to the club’s academy. “No doubt, the environment was amazing and exciting. Of course our opponent was Real Madrid, so that had an effect. But yes, I appreciated the (support) of the Saudi people.”

Valencia’s mission goes deeper than the annual cup competition, however, and aligns with La Liga’s ambitions to grow its brand in the Middle East and beyond.

Corona says the club is in the middle of a long-term rebuilding process.

“We have passed a very difficult situation in terms of finances, and we have an amazing young team,” said Corona. “We have a coach (former Valencia player Ruben Barja) that understands perfectly the environment, the club. And bit by bit, we are rebuilding this amazing club, because for the last two, three years it was very difficult.”

La Liga fans of a certain age in the Middle East will remember the club’s glorious period at the start of the century, when Valencia, first under Hector Cuper and then Rafael Benitez, reached two Champions League finals, won two league titles (2001/2002 and 2003/2004) and a UEFA Cup (2003/2004).

Corona is now hoping to attract a new generation of supporters.

“In the Premier League, they have Mohamed Salah, they used to have Riyad Mahrez, many players from Algeria, from Morocco, from Tunisia,” he said. “But they (also) love La Liga and we are well aware of that.

“Our social media indicators are very interesting,” said Corona. “We (have) fans in MENA (Middle East and North Africa), Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria and also in Saudi, with the Valencia CF fan group we have there. We feel the love and we want to attract more fans, to bring the club even closer to these fans.”

A few months on from last year’s Spanish Super Cup adventure in Riyadh, Valencia were involved in a lesser-known tournament back home that is perhaps no less important for the long-term ties with — and development of — Saudi Arabia football.

Organized in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport, the Al-Abtal International Cup, an international under-19 tournament, had two teams from the Kingdom compete against clubs from England, France, Portugal, Greece, Belgium, Austria and Croatia at several Spanish venues.

Valencia reached the final and lost to Real Madrid, but earlier in the group stages they had faced the two teams that Saudi Arabia had entered, the “Green” and “White” Future Falcons teams.

The head of the VCF Academy, Luis Martinez, describes the Future Falcons initiative — which has resulted in the Saudi Arabian Football Federation also host under-14 tournaments — as a “great idea.”

“I think that will help to increase their level for sure,” he said, referencing the development of young Saudi Arabia talent. “Because at the end, you increase the level of competitiveness.”

“We have played three years in the tournament,” Martinez added. “The first year (2021), we won the tournament. Second year (2022), we were beaten in semifinals. And last year, we played the final in Prague (against Real Madrid). This year, logistically, we couldn’t participate.”

“The level is good,” he added, but cautioned that Saudi Arabia players may need more experience to compete against established teams from Europe.

“It’s true that the level of the competition that they wanted to create is very high, (but) sometimes you see that they are maybe still not ready to compete at that level.

“Because in the end, they are inviting Valencia, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Zagreb, Liverpool, Benfica, or Lisbon. Those teams are top in Europe. To reach that level is complicated for anyone. For us, for anyone. (But) I think, if they (Saudi Arabia teams) continue like this, the level will go up.”

There are signs that at lower age-group levels, Saudi Arabia’s players are increasingly more competitive. In 2022, a team from the Mahd Academy played against Valencia and Villarreal during a trip to Spain.

And Martinez’s age-group teams have also come up against young Saudi Arabia teams on visits to the Kingdom. In March this year, Valencia took part in the first La Liga FC Futures U-14 tournament held at the Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh, which was won by Villarreal.

“We played the team from the Mahd Academy and at that age, 14 years old, the level was great,” said Martinez. “They were competing and they were performing well.

“So I think the level is going up, I think in Saudi in general they are investing in football. Of course they are investing a lot in professional football with the big stars, but if they keep investing as well in football development with good professionals, with good structures, methodology, the level must go higher.”

Martinez believes that many players from the Middle East and North Africa region are blessed with natural skills that are gained from being allowed to play with freedom at a young age. Street football, he calls it.

“A lot of players from maybe Morocco and Middle East and Africa, they have the skills, but maybe not the tactical awareness,” he said. “The funny thing is, maybe we, in Spain or south Europe, historically were the source of this kind of talent, players who play in the street, and I think we are destroying this a bit.”

“Right now players in Spain, the kids they don’t play in the streets. So maybe we are losing these type of players that are very technical because they are very anarchic. That’s why we have to go and find them in those countries.”

For Martinez, it is all about finding the right balance between technical skill and tactical awareness. To achieve this, he points to the methodology used at the Valencia CF Academy, which was voted the fourth best in Europe in 2023.

Raul Albiol, David Silva, Isco, Jordi Alba, Paco Alcacer and Ferran Torres are just a few players who have risen through the Valencia ranks to become global superstars.

“The main objective is written at the main door of the academy,” said Martinez.

“It’s developing players for the first team, or if they are not able to play for the first team, at least to place them in professional football. It seems easy, or it seems like something everybody would understand. You are an academy, you develop players for the first team. But it’s not that easy.”

A tactical methodology is implemented throughout the club, from the youngest age group to the first team, ensuring players rising through the ranks will fit into the various teams as they progress.

However, the main challenge for Martinez is how to balance individual talent with maintaining a competitive, winning culture for the team.

“You need to put the focus on developing players, and not as much in just developing teams and making winning teams,” Martinez said. “So that’s, for us, is the key focus. Finding the right people, coaches and rest of the staff, who understand that we are here to develop players.”

“The goal is always developing players (first). The teams that we use are, let’s say, tools to develop those players. This is in opposition to professional football, because at the end, in professional football, your goal is the team, to bring success, to win trophies, to win the league, to go to the Champions League.”

One of the academy’s main targets is to ensure players continue their education as a part of a holistic approach to developing individuals off the pitch.

The club has only one team in each of the under 16, 17 and 19 age groups, as well as the B team. The academy is also home to a 40-bed dormitory for the players, where they are provided with all their needs.

“If you have good players, you have good facilities, good coaches, normally the consequence of all this would be winning. But it shouldn’t be the focus of the situation. The focus of the situation should be developing players.”

Esports enthusiasts set for GCC League 2024 finals in Riyadh

Esports enthusiasts set for GCC League 2024 finals in Riyadh
Updated 11 June 2024

Esports enthusiasts set for GCC League 2024 finals in Riyadh

Esports enthusiasts set for GCC League 2024 finals in Riyadh
  • ‘The enthusiasm, passion, and love for esports in all GCC nations are well-known around the globe,’ says SEF’s Chairman Prince Faisal bin Bandar
  • Contestants to battle it out for regional supremacy, share of $150,000 prize pool across Rocket League and TEKKEN 8

RIYADH: Esports enthusiasts are gearing up for a sensational spectacle with the inaugural GCC League 2024 finals in Riyadh on June 27-28, when contenders go head-to-head across the Rocket League and TEKKEN 8 competitions.
Presented by the Saudi Esports Federation, the GCC League is the newest Middle Eastern esports tournament that brings together six countries and some of the region’s greatest athletes and clubs for a series of showdowns.
SEF’s Chairman Prince Faisal bin Bandar said on Tuesday: “We cannot wait for the GCC League 2024 finale, and we share the excitement of esports fans throughout the region and beyond, ahead of what promises to be another world-class event in Riyadh.”
The first-ever edition began last month as 12 teams from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE faced off in an online Rocket League tournament, the vehicular soccer game and one of the world’s most popular titles.
Following 10 days of non-stop group stage action from May 12-21, the stage is set for exhilarating back-to-back encounters later this month.
Live from Riyadh, the remaining contestants will battle it out for regional supremacy and their share of a $150,000 prize pool across Rocket League and another world-renowned title, TEKKEN 8.
Prince Faisal said: “The enthusiasm, passion, and love for esports in all GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) nations are well-known around the globe — and this is one of many factors behind what makes the GCC League particularly exciting and intriguing. This upcoming event is simply unmissable for all with a vested interest in our industry.”
Among the challengers are Xenon Esports of Kuwait and the Oman National Team B. They advanced to the finals as winners of Groups A and B respectively in the tournament’s first online stage last month.
Also in the running for glory are Group A qualifiers, the Bahrain National Team, and Group B qualifiers Unity Esports (Kuwait) and KHK Esports (Bahrain).
Prince Faisal added: “Welcoming the region’s biggest and best talent for a brand-new competition is the latest illustration of our enduring commitment to provide new opportunities for regional talent to shine.”
Alongside the greatest athletes and clubs from across the region, local esports fans are sure to provide Team Falcons and Twisted Minds with incredible home support as these clubs are representing the host nation.

Formula E Season 11 calendar reveals return to Saudi Arabia at new circuit

Formula E Season 11 calendar reveals return to Saudi Arabia at new circuit
Updated 11 June 2024

Formula E Season 11 calendar reveals return to Saudi Arabia at new circuit

Formula E Season 11 calendar reveals return to Saudi Arabia at new circuit
  • The electric car event’s longest championship season to date will include 17 races at 11 locations
  • The Kingdom will host races in Diriyah for a seventh time on Feb. 14-15 on a new track, details of which are yet to be announced

RIYADH: The provisional calendar for Season 11 of the ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, unveiled on Tuesday, confirms a return to Diriyah early next year and reveals the event’s longest season, with the largest number of races and locations to date.
It once again includes a race double-header in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 14-15. This will be the seventh time the Kingdom has been part of the Formula E championship and the races will take place on a new track in Diriyah, the precise details of which will be announced later.
The 11th season of the pioneering all-electric racing event will for the first time consist of 17 races at 11 locations. In addition to the new track in Diriyah, the provisional calendar, subject to validation by the FIA World Motorsport Council, reveals a new race location in Miami; a double-header of races in Monaco, marking a first for the principality in any motorsport championship; a double-header in Tokyo; and the return of Jakarta to the calendar.
“For Season 11 we’re taking electric racing to the next level and doing things that have never been done before in motorsport,” said Jeff Dodds, the CEO of Formula E.
“Our world-leading GEN3 EVO will debut in front of hundreds of millions of fans around the globe, while adding two brand new locations and combinations of double-headers to grow our sport further.
“The new and improved calendar offers a perfect blend of circuits for drivers to push their upgraded cars to the limit, while staying true to our street-racing DNA and the on-track action it produces.”
The Season 11 campaign will begin in Sao Paulo on Dec. 7, following preseason testing from Nov. 4-7 in Valencia, as the all-new GEN3 EVO race car — capable of going from 0-60 mph in just 1.82 seconds, 36 percent faster than the current GEN3 vehicles — is put through its paces and tested in public for the first time.
The new circuit in Diriyah will host the first double-header of the season, and on April 12 the championship returns to Miami for the first time since the first season, at the Homestead-Miami Speedway venue, which has hosted NASCAR and IndyCar races for decades.
Monaco will will host back-to-back races on the full Circuit de Monaco for the first time, and following the inaugural Tokyo E-Prix in March this year, for which public roads in the world’s most populous city were closed for an automotive event for the first time, it will host a double header of races on May 17 and 18.
Jakarta returns to the calendar after a one-year hiatus, and the season will conclude with a double-header finale at ExCeL London. One location is yet to be confirmed, as final discussions with a new venue continue ahead of final confirmation of the calendar following the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council Meeting.
“We’re thrilled to offer a calendar with some fresh new highlights while building on our legacy locations,” said Alberto Longo, co-founder and chief championship officer of Formula E.
“Returning to Miami gives us a home in one of the US’s most iconic and sports-mad cities, while securing a double-header in Monaco is a dream come true. We can’t wait to build on the success of Tokyo and deliver a double-header, while returning to Jakarta and entertaining our huge Indonesian fanbase, too.
“With 17 races across the season and our most advanced race car debuting on-track, we’re offering our fans cutting-edge sport we could only have hoped for when founding the championship just over 10 years ago.”
Marek Nawarecki, director of the FIA Circuit Sport Department, said: “The 2024-25 ABB FIA Formula E World Championship calendar features a range of circuits that will truly showcase the qualities of the brand new GEN3 EVO car, set to be introduced next season.
“I’m glad that Formula E capitalizes on the success of the Tokyo and Shanghai races while also returning to some of its iconic venues and retaining a good amount of street circuits, which is in its core DNA. I’m also hopeful that this new season will again play host to some fascinating action on track.”

Riyadh crowned champions of Chestertons Polo in the Park

Riyadh crowned champions of Chestertons Polo in the Park
Updated 10 June 2024

Riyadh crowned champions of Chestertons Polo in the Park

Riyadh crowned champions of Chestertons Polo in the Park
  • The Riyadh team were crowned champions after defeating the London team 6-2

LONDON: The Riyadh Polo Team emerged victorious as the 14th edition of the Chestertons in the Park championship concluded in the British capital on Sunday.

The Riyadh team were crowned champions after defeating the London team 6-2.

British player Patrick O’Dwyre of the runners-up won the award for best player in the championship, while Sofia, played by Francisco Elizalde of the Riyadh team, won best horse.

Faisal Abu Nayan, Noor Abu Khadrah, and Argentinians Francisco Elizalde and Matias Lallores made it to the final after beating the Dubai team 9-8 in the quarterfinals and the Buenos Aires team from Argentina 9-3 in the semifinals.

Amr Zidan, the president of the Saudi Polo Federation, said he was very happy that the Riyadh team had won the championship against such strong competition.