RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo raised a few eyebrows when, only months into his move to Al-Nassr, he predicted the Saudi Pro League would be one of the top five in the world within a few years. Recent developments have shown his remarks to be right on the mark.
“(The) Saudi league is getting better and the next year will be even better,” he told Saudi sports channel SSC toward the end of last season.
“Step-by-step, I think this league will be among the top five leagues in the world but they need time, players and infrastructure. But I believe that this country has amazing potential, they have amazing people and the league will be great, in my opinion.”
It is a view he has since repeated with confidence and, each time he does so, his belief looks more and more justified and accurate.
On July 18, while in Spain with his Al-Nassr teammates for their preseason training camp, Ronaldo doubled down on his comments. He committed to his Saudi adventure and dismissed many European leagues — and America’s Major League Soccer, the new home of his rival, Lionel Messi — in one fell swoop.
“Europe has lost a lot of quality,” he said. “The only one that is one of the best is the (English) Premier League. It’s way ahead of all the other leagues from my point of view.
“The Spanish league lost its level, the Portuguese one is not a top one, the German has also lost a lot of quality. The USA? No, the Saudi championship is much better than the USA.”
Given the number of major recent signings of top international stars by Saudi Arabia’s leading clubs during the summer transfer window, Ronaldo’s estimate of a “few years” could well be accelerated.
Some of the big moves to the Kingdom from Europe are worth highlighting: Karim Benzema from Real Madrid to Al-Ittihad; Sadio Mane from Bayern Munich to Al-Nassr; Riyadh Mahrez from Manchester City to Al-Ahli; N’Golo Kante from Chelsea to Al-Ittihad; Reuben Neves from Wolves to Al-Hilal; Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio to Al-Hilal; and the trio of Fabinho, Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson from Liverpool to Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Ettifaq respectively.
There are many more, as the number of players signing from abroad seemingly grows by the day.
What has taken place is nothing short of a revolution in Saudi football. It is comfortably the biggest story in the football world, following the unprecedented summer 2023 transfer window.
Of course, there were already many standout past and current foreign players in the Saudi Pro League over the past few years. The likes of Bafetimbi Gomis at Al-Hilal, Talisca at Al-Nassr and Abderrazak Hamdallah at Al-Ittihad, to name just a few, have all been hugely successful in the SPL, not to mention popular with the fans.
But Ronaldo’s arrival in Riyadh on Dec. 31, 2022, redefined the Saudi Pro League. Once dismissed as a mere rumor, his move to Al-Nassr — after being released by Manchester United — changed perceptions of Saudi domestic football overnight. Coming shortly after the Kingdom’s historic 2-1 win over Argentina at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it showed that the Kingdom had to be taken seriously.
Suddenly, other players began to take notice, as did the fans and the international media. The knock-on effects since then have been astonishing. Saudi Arabia’s top clubs, having been privatized and backed financially by the country’s Public Investment Fund, can now afford to pick off players at the peak of their careers from some of the biggest, and richest, clubs in the world.
Global interest in the league, which is also known as the Roshn Saudi League, has already skyrocketed, with international broadcasters also jumping on board. They include live sports streaming service DAZN, which has the exclusive rights to show games in the UK, YouTube channel Canal Goat, which will screen matches in Brazil, and free-to-air channel LA7 in Italy, according sources.
DAZN is set to stream three matches each week, beginning with Friday’s season opener between newly promoted clubs Al-Ahli and Al-Hazm. Sky Sports had picked up the UK digital broadcast rights to the Saudi top flight halfway through last season, but DAZN was the first to commit to a whole season.
No doubt the effects of all these developments on the future of Saudi football, not to mention that of Middle Eastern and Asian football in general, will be seismic in the season and years ahead. But amid the excitement and euphoria, there are serious issues that need to be addressed.
While the wider picture is clearly positive, and is already ensuring the SPL is a league to be reckoned with, the future of football in the Kingdom will have to be managed carefully and strategically to ensure the overall health of the game is maintained for the benefit of the clubs, the national team and the nurturing of young Saudi talent.
The rate of signings in recent weeks has been relentless and has raised questions as to when the spending spree will end. Officially, the Saudi transfer window closes on Sept. 7, a week after the one in Europe. This has caused concern among clubs, particularly those in the English Premier League, who worry they might lose more players during that overlapping period with no opportunity to replace them.
Beyond this summer’s immediate deadline, however, things will remain somewhat open-ended in terms of outgoing and incoming players, although an obvious end point for some clubs would be when they fill their full quotas for foreign players.
Another area of debate surrounds how this strengthening of the elite clubs will affect some of the league’s smaller teams. This concern was recently addressed by authorities, who said targeted projects will be supported if and when they are implemented for clubs outside the big five.
Then there is the worry that the influx of foreign players will adversely affect the development and progress of young Saudi talent, along with the careers of established local players.
The SPL and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation have moved to allay those fears by formulating a strategy designed to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch. New regulations are being rolled out, designed to increase playing time for young Saudi players. They include a reduction in the age of eligibility from 18 to 16, and a requirement for squads to include 25 senior players and 10 under the age 21 beginning with the 2025-26 season.
It is a policy that Al-Ettifaq coach Steven Gerrard and new signing Jordan Henderson — two former Liverpool captains — have thrown their support behind by committing to help efforts to nurture the next generation of Saudi footballing talent.
“At Ettifaq we have a lot of promising young talent who have a bright future,” said Gerrard. “And I am really proud to be the coach of the team. Hopefully I can help support these players and help develop them into better players in the future.”
For now, there is no denting the sense of optimism and positivity sweeping through Saudi football. For fans of the SPL, old and new, the 2023-24 season’s big kick-off on Friday cannot come soon enough.