RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo opened the door and the rest followed.
What was a one-man mission to put the Saudi Pro League on the world map just a few months ago, has become a full-blown revolution.
So much so that when Brazilian superstar Neymar joined Al-Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain in August, it felt more like the apogee of a project rather than the scarcely believable.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcement that Saudi Arabia’s top clubs would be privatized has ushered in a new, golden era for football in the Kingdom, with Riyadh’s clubs leading the way.
When Ronaldo was first linked with a move to Al-Nassr, the reports were dismissed as fanciful across the world. On Dec. 31, 2022, the perception of Saudi football changed overnight.
Suddenly, a move to the SPL was not just attractive, but almost irresistible for some of the world’s top players.
Al-Hilal were not going to take lightly losing their Saudi Pro League and AFC Champions League titles last season. A major rebuilding operation has seen Portugal’s Reuben Neves join from Wolves and Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic arrive from Lazio; two players at the peak of their careers. This put to rest the argument that leagues in the Middle East and GCC were retirement homes for players nearing the end of their careers.
Senegal’s Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea, and Brazil’s Malcom from Zenit Saint Petersburg, had already joined the Blues, before Neymar’s landmark announcement was followed by the arrival of Moroccan goalkeeper Yasine Bounou (Sevilla) and Serbian forward Alexander Mitrovic (Fulham).
At Al-Nassr, the club that started the deluge of foreign imports, Sadio Mane (Senegal) from Bayern Munich, Marcelo Brozovic (Croatia) from Inter Milan, Seko Fofana (Ivory Coast) from RC Lens, and Alex Telles (Brazil) from Manchester United, have made the move to Riyadh as bona fide stars and not just Ronaldo’s supporting cast.
The late summer transfer window additions of Spanish international defender Aymeric Laporte from Manchester City, and Portuguese midfielder Otavio from Porto, will only bolster the Yellows’ bid to become champions this season.
Rounding up Riyadh’s trio of iconic clubs are Al-Shabab which in 2022-2023 finished fourth in the SPL and for long periods of the season were seen as genuine title contenders.
Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco joined from Atletico Madrid and will forge a midfield partnership with Ever Banega, the Argentinian who has already enjoyed a fine career with Shabab since 2020.
Meanwhile Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar has made the move across to Riyadh after spending four trophy-laden years at rivals Al-Hilal.
Keeping goal behind this international trio is Kim Seung-gyu of South Korea, who joined Al-Shabab last year.
Last season, when Ronaldo said that within a few years the Saudi Pro League would be ranked in the world’s top five competitions, cynics scoffed at the pronouncement.
It seems his words could become true even quicker than he might have anticipated because global broadcasters are now screening live matches from the SPL on a weekly basis, and international players are increasingly looking to make Riyadh their new home.