How the Saudi Pro League became the football world’s biggest story

Special How the Saudi Pro League became the football world’s biggest story
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The arrival of Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo in Riyadh in December 2022 redefined the Saudi Pro League, bringing Saudi football to the attention of fans and broadcasters. (AFP)
Special How the Saudi Pro League became the football world’s biggest story
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Hilal's Brazilian forward Malcom stretches to control the ball (C) during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup semi-final football match between Saudi Arabia's Al-Shabab and Al-Hilal at the King Fahd Stadium in Taif on August 9, 2023. Malcom is one of the latest world footballer to join the Saudi Pro League. (AFP)
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Updated 11 August 2023
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How the Saudi Pro League became the football world’s biggest story

How the Saudi Pro League became the football world’s biggest story
  • Saudi football, not to mention Middle Eastern and Asian teams in general, will be seismic in the years ahead
  • Global interest in the league has skyrocketed, with broadcasters DAZN, Canal Goat and LA7 jumping on board

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.




Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo’s decision to join the Al Nassr football club redefined the Saudi Pro League. (AFP)

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.




Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema are among football's big names who have moved to the Saudi Pro League following in Cristiano Ronaldo's footsteps. (AFP photos)

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.




French midfielder N'Golo Kante moved from English Premier League's Chelsea football club to the Saudi pro League's Al-Ittihad earlier this year. (AFP)

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.




Live sports streaming service DAZN is set to stream three matches in the Saudi Pro League every week. (AFP)

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.




In this photo posted on social media, Al Nassr foot club's juniors are shown on training. There is the worry that the influx of foreign players will adversely affect the development and progress of young Saudi talent. (Twitter photo)

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.

 


FEI World Cup comes to Riyadh: Meet the Saudi riders

FEI World Cup comes to Riyadh: Meet the Saudi riders
Updated 15 April 2024
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FEI World Cup comes to Riyadh: Meet the Saudi riders

FEI World Cup comes to Riyadh: Meet the Saudi riders
  • Riyadh will be hosting the prestigious FEI event for the first time since winning the bid in 2019

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian capital is gearing up to welcome the global equestrian community for the Federation Equestre Internationale Jumping World Cup Finals this weekend.

Riyadh will be hosting the prestigious FEI event for the first time since winning the bid in 2019. According to the international body, it is also a first for the Arabian peninsula region.

The finals will run from April 17 to April 20 at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center, with a total prize pool of €2.6 million ($2.7 million) up for grabs.

Three Saudi champions who qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics — Abdullah Al-Sharbatly, Ramzy Al-Duhami and Khaled Al-Motby — will compete in this weekend’s showjumping competition.

Arab News joined the riders behind the scenes at the stables, as the pressure mounts for the trio to secure their country a medal.

“I’ve got my, superstars, my best friends, Alamo and Fiumicino, two horses,” Al-Sharbatly said.

The 41-year-old Olympic medallist was part of the showjumping team that won Saudi Arabia a bronze medal during the 2012 London Olympics. In late 2023, he secured his sixth Asian gold medal.

Riyadh will be hosting the prestigious FEI event for the first time since winning the bid in 2019. (AN Photo/Abdulrahman bin Shulhub)

Despite this impressive record, Al-Sharbatly believes that fate also plays a part.

“In any sport you can’t win every day. And you also need a little bit of luck,” he said. “So it could be my show and it can be also that I want to have the best luck in this show.”

For Al-Sharbatly, the most important thing is that he will be surrounded by the animals he loves.

“I have so much love for horses,” he said. “Even if I don’t ride, it’s not a problem, but I have to be surrounded with horses every day.”

Al-Duhami said: “As you grow older in this sport, you get more experience and your goals change.”

The 52-year-old Saudi Olympic medalist, a revered rider in the Kingdom, has competed for decades, dating back to the 1980s. He competed in the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, where he received the bronze medal with the Saudi team.

“It’s not anymore about winning any event, but you want to win this big, major event, and then your focus becomes that, instead of just winning every weekend and trying to get a result every weekend,” he said.

Al-Duhami said that there was “a lot of hope” for the coming finals, though the focus has been the Olympics. He described his horse, Untouchable 32, as a “very good Olympic-caliber horse.”

He has witnessed the equestrian scene develop first-hand. From first discovering horses as a child through his late father, who financially invested in horses for him, to now watching the federation take on that crucial, parental-like role for the younger generation.

Three Saudi champions who qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics — Abdullah Al-Sharbatly, Ramzy Al-Duhami and Khaled Al-Motby — will compete in this weekend’s showjumping competition. (AN Photo/Abdulrahman bin Shulhub) 

For Al-Duhami, the World Cup is more than just a sports milestone for Saudi Arabia.

“Bringing this event to Saudi is is one step, for this young generation to come and see their role models in front of their eyes,” he said.

“And seeing their home country riders competing will give them the ambition and the possibility to think that ‘OK, now we can do it.”

Al-Duhami believes that hosting this event will enable a rich cultural exchange that can contribute in positive ways to the growth of the equestrian scene in Saudi Arabia.

“There is a lot of talent. The Saudi riders are very talented, and if they have given the chance to come and compete, they will always perform,” he said.

One of the riders Al-Duhami referred to is Al-Mobty. At only 25-years-old, Al-Mobty will be rubbing shoulders with the Kingdom’s and Arab world’s best competitors, as well as international champions, over the course of the weekend.

In 2018, he, together with Al-Sharbatly and Al-Duhami, brought home a gold medal from the Asian Games in Jakarta.

He described the results as one of his proudest achievements, coupled with the “gold medal in Ashgabat with the Saudi team, a silver medal in the Ashgabat tournament. Winning an individual gold medal in the Saudi Games Championship and winning a team gold medal in the Saudi Games Championship.”

This weekend’s tournament is indoors, which can pose a challenge for some showjumpers.

“They are always the hardest due to space limitations, and there will be greater pressure on the horses since it is a closed venue with an unfamiliar audience,” Al-Mobty said.

Al-Mobty said that despite these hurdles, he is hopeful that they will all perform well.


Day 3 of Fencing World Championships sees new champions

Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
Updated 15 April 2024
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Day 3 of Fencing World Championships sees new champions

Vctorious women’s under-20 foil team was honored during the ongoing event in Riyadh. SPA
  • The American team dominated the men’s under-20 foil team

Riyadh: Abdullah Al-Sunaid, CEO of the 2024 Junior and Cadet Fencing World Championships, crowned the victorious women’s under-20 foil team during the ongoing event in Riyadh. 

The Japanese team emerged triumphant, securing the gold medal after a thrilling victory over Italy, who won silver. The Republic of Korea claimed the bronze, with France also clinching bronze and securing the third position in the intense competitions held at the King Saud University Sports Arena.

In the men’s events, Mohammed Chaouchi, president of the Tunisian Fencing Federation, honored the winners of the third day. The American team dominated the men’s under-20 foil team, seizing the gold medal by defeating Italy, who took silver. Japan secured the bronze, while France also claimed the bronze and secured the third spot on the podium.


Vibrant Sajah Bazaar, live music as Eid meets golf to entertain 2024 Saudi Open fans

Vibrant Sajah Bazaar, live music as Eid meets golf to entertain 2024 Saudi Open fans
Updated 13 April 2024
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Vibrant Sajah Bazaar, live music as Eid meets golf to entertain 2024 Saudi Open fans

Vibrant Sajah Bazaar, live music as Eid meets golf to entertain 2024 Saudi Open fans
  • Sajah Bazaar to headline 2024 Saudi Open fan zone at Riyadh Golf Club
  • Fan zone will provide food, drinks from around the world

RIYADH: Visitors to this year’s Saudi Open golf tournament will also be able to enjoy live music and fireworks at the Riyadh Golf Club.
The four-day championship starts on Wednesday and as well as top-class sport promises plenty of family fun.
LIV Golf captain Henrik Stenson will headline the field, which also includes some of the leading players on the Asian Tour, like last year’s Saudi Open winner Denwit Boriboonsub.
Each day of the tournament, from 4-11 p.m., visitors will be able to visit the Sajah Bazaar where they can buy local goods like textiles and jewelry.
There will also be lots to do in the fan zone, including golf driving and putting challenges, Panna soccer, Teqball, food and drink from around the world and a children’s area.
There are also some great prizes up for grabs, with Al-Rajhi Takaful donating 50 car insurance vouchers worth SR1,000 ($267), while two lucky ticket holders will see their general admission tickets upgraded to hospitality tickets and get the chance to watch world class golf from the best seats in the house.
Two winners will be randomly selected daily, while each person who takes a photo of a golfer on the Al-Rajhi teebox and posts it to social media with #Golf&More will be entered into the prize draw to win car insurance.
The fan zone opens on Wednesday and Thursday from 1-11 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.


ICRF concludes participation in SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit in Birmingham

ICRF concludes participation in SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit in Birmingham
Updated 12 April 2024
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ICRF concludes participation in SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit in Birmingham

ICRF concludes participation in SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit in Birmingham
  • Federation was seeking to promote camel sports globally
  • Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, minister of sports and chairman of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, visited pavilion

RIYADH: The International Camel Racing Federation has concluded its participation in the SportAccord World Sport & Business Summit that took place in Birmingham from April 7-11.
The ICRF was seeking to promote camel sports around the world by being present at the event.
Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, the minister of sports and chairman of the Saudi Olympic and Paralympic Committee, visited the federation’s pavilion on Tuesday, where he received an award that was presented to the SOPC.
Prince Fahad bin Jalawi bin Abdulaziz bin Musaed, ICRF’s president and SOPC’s vice president; Dr. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee; and Robin Mitchell, president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, were present at the award presentation.
Prince Fahad said: “We are pleased with what the federation’s pavilion presented at this summit, which around 1,500 leaders and key decision-makers from over 120 international federations attended.”
Participation at the event helped publicize camel sports which, according to the ICRF’s president, have a large role in Saudi culture and are a big part of the nation’s identity.
Prince Fahad added: “The federation’s goal through this participation was to shed light on the sport of our fathers and ancestors, which Arab countries have known since ancient times until it became part of their societies.”


World Fencing Championship for youngsters starts in Riyadh on Friday

World Fencing Championship for youngsters starts in Riyadh on Friday
Updated 11 April 2024
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World Fencing Championship for youngsters starts in Riyadh on Friday

World Fencing Championship for youngsters starts in Riyadh on Friday
  • Competition begins with foil fencing for participants under 20 years
  • 54 referees from around the world will officiate

RIYADH: The Cadet and Junior World Fencing Championship begins on Friday in the Arena Hall at King Saud University, Riyadh.
More than 1,700 fencers from more than 100 countries will be participating at the event, which concludes on April 20.
The championship starts at 8 a.m. with foil fencing for participants under 20 years, while the opening ceremony is at 5 p.m. and includes players, referees, a visual presentation about fencing, and a parade of the teams’ flags.
WFC’s organizing committee began its preparations for the event by issuing visas; selecting 15 hotels for the delegations of the teams and committees in the international federation; and assigning 30 buses to transport players from the hotels to training venues and competition halls.
The committee has also prepared 60 courts to the highest standards to comply with the International Fencing Federation.
The event will be officiated by 54 referees from around the world.
The championship is expected to attract global attention and media coverage, and its prestige will help in the pursuit of achieving the goals of Vision 2030 that aim to transform Saudi Arabia into a global destination for hosting major competitions and events.
Attendance for spectators at the Arena Hall is free of charge.