SPL quality this season ‘vindication’ of transfer policy: Saudi league’s director of football

SPL quality this season ‘vindication’ of transfer policy: Saudi league’s director of football
Michael Emenalo, Saudi Pro League’s director of football, brings with him a wealth of experience highlighted by his success as a long-serving technical director at Chelsea Football Club. (Supplied)
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Updated 16 November 2023

SPL quality this season ‘vindication’ of transfer policy: Saudi league’s director of football

SPL quality this season ‘vindication’ of transfer policy: Saudi league’s director of football
  • Michael Emenalo, in charge of Player Acquisition Center of Excellence, on league’s progress since summer

RIYADH: Michael Emenalo is the Saudi Pro League’s director of football, charged with leading its Player Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE), which provides a centralized approach to transfers while also assisting with squad mapping and player care.

Appointed in July, the former Nigerian international brings with him a wealth of experience highlighted by his success as a long-serving technical director at Chelsea Football Club in the English Premier League.

At the SPL, Emenalo’s deep know-how is considered key to providing all clubs with the best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, and sustainable future.

Now a few months into the role, he spoke to Arab News about the progress already made and what was still to come.

Could you explain what your role as the league’s director of football entails?

Simply put, my role is, first and foremost, to help attract interest into the league locally and globally.

It is also to help the process of bringing into the league quality players and staff to help elevate the standard of the league — which is already good and, historically, very performant — but to take it to a level of competition that mirrors the ambition that the stakeholders have.

Also, part of that role is to help foster a process of education in the industry for nationals of Saudi Arabia so they can improve other youngsters in this country who are interested in football.

You are a few months into the job already. What is your assessment of the progress the SPL has achieved since your arrival?

We’re all very excited. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s not perfect, and our ambition is to always reach for perfection.

At this point, it’s very clear that there are things that need to be fixed. But we’re all very encouraged by the progress that’s been made so far.

The quality of some of the games — it doesn’t matter who is playing, be it the so-called smaller teams against the bigger teams — the quality of the football, and the competitiveness, has been something to admire, and we are encouraged by that.

We are also encouraged that the foreign players that have come in are showing the relevant expertise that we anticipated, and that the locals are matching that level of performance.

Overall, it is progress beyond what we expected, but obviously the ambition is very, very high.

How do you assess that first transfer window in your current role?

Well, again, I think we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was to get our foot into the market and compete aggressively.

But, also, we wanted to do that while giving every single club in the league an opportunity to improve. I believe we accomplished that.

And I believe that, what you’re seeing, in terms of the quality of the games and the performance of most of the acquired international players, is a vindication that the transfer market has been relatively well. And we hope that we will continue to perfect our process in the future.

As head of PACE, what are the key metrics you use to assess the success of bringing high-prolife players to the league?

The metrics are simple — it is that the players have a background or history of high performance; that they could be acquired at a reasonable price; that they fit the model or the requirements of the acquiring club; and, last but not least, that they are individuals that we believe will not only come in and bring a great competency on the pitch, but who will also bring the desire to lead in positive and educational ways for youngsters in Saudi Arabia.

How busy do you envision the January transfer window will be, and how far along are plans in further strengthening squads with top-end players?

Well, I’m hoping it’s not very busy, because I think the job that was done has been quite interesting and aggressive, and most of the clubs, I believe, have what they need.

And hopefully the attention will now turn to work within the training facilities to improve these players and to allow the time to adapt and perform.

Now, whatever additional improvement that we need to do for any club, with time on our hands and preparation, we believe will be additions of the highest level.

What is the SPL’s vision and what must you do to ensure it becomes one of the lead destinations for the best players in the world?

Well, the SPL vision is all about raising standards; we want to improve standards in everything that surrounds the league and the clubs that it governs.

That means that we have to improve governance, we have to improve our public relations, we have to improve commercially, and we have to improve our outreach to our fans.

Of course, we have to improve performances on the pitch, the academies, and we have to raise standards of training and development of young players coming through.

We want the medical establishment that looks after the players to be of the highest standard, and we want to improve welfare for staff and players that are working in the Kingdom and for these clubs.

It is just about making sure the league is at the highest standard we can possibly be. I think a better word to use is, I would want to make sure that professionally we are competing against and with the best.

What are the unique selling points the SPL can provide that contribute to attracting the game’s best players?

As I’ve said in previous interviews, world-class players and good players around the world are interested in an ambition more than anything else.

They want to see who is trying to go for the highest possible goal — and that’s what we are really trying to offer them.

We’re trying to offer a league that has incredible ambition, that wants to entertain, that wants to have a global outreach to everyone in the world that wants to improve the quality of their lives, but also extend their careers. And I think those are selling points.

We’ve heard many of the summer additions speak about the quality of life in Saudi Arabia. How important a role do you think that plays?

I think about three key areas for a potential entrance into an adventure — in this case, a football adventure — anywhere in the world.

The first thing you think about is, ‘am I going to have fun? If I go to this league, will I be able to have fun on the pitch?’ And then you think, ‘will I be safe?’ And the final element is, ‘will I grow?’

And, right now, what you’re hearing and what you see is that the players who are here think those three boxes are ticked for them. They can have fun here, but they and their families will be safe, and they have an opportunity for growth.

And the combination of those three elements means they have a good time being in the RSL (Roshn Saudi League).

There has been significant investment in infrastructure and facilities. How key is that for the SPL in relation to becoming one of the leading leagues in the world?

The infrastructure of facilities you mentioned are not just building blocks; they are the working environment for the players and staff.

And, if you want to raise standards to reach the ambitions you’ve set, your working space has to be at the highest level. That’s the goal.

How do you balance the desire to attract elite-level players with the need to promote local talent and develop a strong domestic player base?

I think there was a time when this was a very simple debate, and all everyone wanted to do was limit the number of foreign players to improve local players. And I think we have seen that this doesn’t necessarily work.

We’ve seen in places like England, that sudden infusion of world-class players in the league has led to the development of local, world-class players, and I think that’s what is going to happen here.

But you have to grow these players, and when you use the words grow or develop, it means you have to look at the academies, you have to look at the younger ages. That’s where the development of the process starts.

And we want to provide them with an environment — a well-tended development environment — that will allow them to pursue the ambition while they are looking across and competing with some of the best players in the world. So that, by the time they get to the level where they are set free, they’re ready to be the stars like the guys who have come in at the moment.

What impact does having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and other prominent names have on the development of local players?

It never hurts in any industry to have the best performers as part of your actors. And these guys just listed have been the best performers for a very long time in our industry. We’re very, very lucky to have them.

I’ve always explained, privately and publicly, that top-level footballers are incredible and unique artists, and what they can do, you can only dream of until you try to do it, when you realise how difficult it is.

Those guys are exceptional artists, and the artists as time goes on will be greatly appreciated and copied by youngsters in the country and that will be for the good of everyone.

Ronaldo on the mark as Al-Nassr return to winning ways

Ronaldo on the mark as Al-Nassr return to winning ways
Updated 09 December 2023

Ronaldo on the mark as Al-Nassr return to winning ways

Ronaldo on the mark as Al-Nassr return to winning ways
  • A 4-1 win over Riyadh maintains seven-point gap behind runaway leaders Al-Hilal

Cristiano Ronaldo returned to Al-Nassr action on Friday, with the nine-time champions defeating Al-Riyadh 4-1 to stay seven points behind leaders Al-Hilal, who defeated Al-Tai 2-1 earlier.

Ronaldo, who had been dealing with a slight neck strain, was rested in his team’s midweek Champions League trip to Central Asia to draw 1-1 with Tajikistan powerhouse Istiklol, a third game without a win in all competitions.

Back home, he looked fresh and so did Al-Nassr, who had the ball in the net inside the first minute though Seko Fofana’s finish was judged to have been from an offside position. 

A few minutes later, the former Lens and Fulham midfielder turned and shot smartly in the area and drew a fine save from goalkeeper Martin Campana. After 15 minutes, Ronaldo thought he had scored but the block on the goal-line by Birama Toure was not adjudged to have been a handball. It looked close as to whether the Malian midfielder had been behind the line when he cleared, but a goal was not given.

The pressure from the Yellows — playing in white on the night — continued, with Ronaldo a constant threat. And then, just after the half-hour, he scored league goal No. 16 of the season. The 38-year-old drifted free at the far post to stab home a searching Sadio Mane cross from deep. 

Despite Al-Nassr’s dominance, the visitors pulled a goal back at the stroke of half-time, or so they thought as Saleh Al-Abbas, who stroked the ball home, was offside.

There was still time for Al-Nassr to score again before the break. On the right side of the area, Ronaldo chipped the ball right and there was a diving Otavio to head home to make it 2-0. It was Ronaldo’s eighth assist of the season, and it seemed like it was going to be game over.

And so it was midway through the second half. Mane did well on the left side of the area to slip the ball inside to Anderson Talisca, who slotted it home.

Two minutes later, Andre Gray pulled a goal back for the visitors, shooting home from close range to end a slick counterattack, but that was as good as it got for the newly promoted team.

Deep into injury time, Talisca got his second and his team’s fourth, heading home a perfect cross from Sultan Al-Ghannam, and that was that.

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai
Updated 09 December 2023

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai

Al-Dawsari, Mitrovic on target as Al-Hilal beat Al-Tai
  • Saudi Pro League leaders wrack up 16th straight win in all competitions
  • Serbian striker first player since 2012 to score in 7 consecutive league matches

The Al-Hilal machine goes rolling on after the Saudi Pro League leaders defeated Al-Tai 2-1 on Friday to record a 16th successive victory in all competitions.

It was a strange game in that the Riyadh giants dominated but were never able to kill off their hosts, for whom goalkeeper Moataz Al-Baqawi was in fine form.

In the end, it did not matter as Hilal, threatening to pull away at the top of the table, went at Al-Tai from the start.

In the 15th minute, Kalidou Koulibaly’s smart half volley from outside the area drew a good diving save from Al-Baqawi and three minutes later the in-form Aleksandar Mitrovic should have opened the scoring.

A delightful volleyed through ball from Sergej Milinkovic-Savic freed the former Fulham forward who, with just the goalkeeper to beat, dragged his shot wide.

He was relieved in the 20th minute when a classic combination for both Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia swung into action. Salman Al-Faraj crossed from the right and there was Salem Al-Dawsari to send a flying side-footed volley high into the net from near the penalty spot. The two club legends embraced in celebration of a beautiful and important goal.

Ten minutes later, Hilal were given a penalty after Ibrahim Al-Nakhli handled a shot from Mitrovic. The Serbian stepped up to grab his 14th league goal of the season and to get on the score sheet for the seventh successive game, a feat last achieved in Saudi Arabia in 2012 by Brazilian striker Wesley.

Five minutes before the break, the ball fell to Ruben Neves just outside the area and the Portuguese star curled home only for the goal to be ruled out due to an offside in the buildup, though it was a very tight call.

And it became painful for Hilal deep into added time thanks to another spectacular strike. Salman Al-Muwashar was twisting and turning in the middle of the Hilal half as he attempted to protect the ball from a group of blue-shirted players and then, suddenly, Tariq Abdullah stepped forward to side-foot a looping shot that beat the jumping Yassine Bounou, not far off his line on the edge of the 6-yard box.

Instead of 3-0 at the break, it was 2-1 and a game that had been dominated by the 18-time champions was suddenly looking very interesting indeed.

Al-Hilal were determined to make it as predictable as possible and within five minutes of the restart, Mitrovic’s half volley stung the hands of the goalkeeper. Moments later, a delicate chip from Neves just cleared the bar to land on the roof of the net.

Nobody will ever know how it was not 3-1 three minutes before the hour. Neves curled a delightful cross into the area. Milinkovic-Savic’s volley came back off the inside of the post but there was Al-Dawsari to react quickly and drive the rebound toward the top. Somehow, however, Al-Baqawi got there to tip the ball over.

The goalkeeper ensured that Hilal did not get a third goal but they picked up the points nonetheless.

Elsewhere, Al-Taawoun went third behind Al-Nassr with a 4-1 win at home to Al-Fayha, the losers perhaps tired after their Asian Champions League heroics in midweek when they won 4-1 at the Uzbekistan home of Pakhtakor to progress to the knockout stage.

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister
Updated 08 December 2023

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister

Saudi Arabia ready to host 2034 World Cup: Sports minister
  • Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal tells BBC Kingdom has proved itself able to host major events
  • Government has invested over $6.26bn in sports since 2021 as part of Vision 2030

LONDON: Saudi Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal has talked up the sporting and economic opportunities of the Kingdom hosting the 2034 FIFA World Cup, saying his country is ready to host the world’s biggest sporting event.
In an interview with the BBC, he raised the prospect of the Kingdom hosting the competition in the summer rather than the winter, noted the importance of sport in a country where the majority of citizens are below the age of 30, and discussed the progress made by the Saudi Pro League.
The government has invested over £5 billion ($6.26 billion) in sports since 2021 as part of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy away from dependence on fossil fuels.
With the FIFA Club World Cup set to begin in the Kingdom next month, Prince Abdulaziz said Saudi Arabia is more than ready to host the biggest prize in football.
“We’ve showcased that — we’ve hosted more than 85 global events and we’ve delivered on the highest level,” he said.
“We want to attract the world through sports. Hopefully, by 2034, people will have an extraordinary World Cup.”
Since 2021, Saudi Arabia has hosted high-profile boxing matches, ATP tennis tournaments and Formula 1 racing.
The Public Investment Fund made waves when taking control of Premier League side Newcastle United and setting up the LIV Golf tour.
“Twenty million of our population are below the age of 30, so we need to get them engaged — we are playing our role to develop sports within the world and to be part of the international community,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
He added that lessons would be taken from the 2022 FIFA World Cup in neighboring Qatar, which had to be held in winter to avoid high temperatures.
He said Saudi Arabia is “definitely” looking into whether a summer contest would be feasible.
“Why not see what the possibilities are to do it in the summer? Whether it is summer or winter, it doesn’t matter for us, as long as we make sure that we (deliver) the right atmosphere to host such an event,” he added.
On the subject of the World Cup’s sustainability, Prince Abdulaziz said: “It’s a mandate on us in the Kingdom to make sure that we abide by the international regulations … to make sure that we play our role, to make sure that it’s eco-friendly.”
He addressed the progress of football in the Kingdom, which has taken on global significance since the £750 million influx of big names to the Saudi Pro League earlier this year, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar.
At grassroots, too, football is gaining in popularity, and the Kingdom even sees over 70,000 women and girls regularly taking part in the sport.
“All of our big matches have attracted record numbers so far … We’re broadcasting to 147 countries around the world,” Prince Abdulaziz said.
“When we planned to develop the league we never thought that we would do it with such pace, but to see that is actually refreshing and it actually showcases the importance of this. Our focus is to develop our league to attract the best in the world.”

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq
Updated 08 December 2023

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq

Steven Gerrard: ‘Extremely nice’ to have Moussa Dembele back for Al-Ettifaq
  • French striker makes return in draw with Al-Shabab after 2 months out
  • Moussa ‘key to us winning games,’ teammate Jack Hendry says

RIYADH: Al-Ettifaq manager Steven Gerrard said it was “extremely nice” to have Moussa Dembele back in Roshn Saudi League action after his No. 9 made a substitute return following knee surgery.
The former Fulham, Celtic, Atletico Madrid and Lyon striker played the final 20 minutes of the 0-0 draw at Al-Shabab on Thursday night. The game at the new Al-Shabab Club Stadium in Riyadh saw Ettifaq finish with 10 men following Demarai Gray’s red card, while the hosts ended with nine after Ever Banega and Gustavo Cuellar were both dismissed.
While frustrated not to have taken all three points — Dembele nearly made the perfect return with a late header that went over the bar — Gerrard said that having his top scorer back was a boost. Al-Ettifaq have failed to score in five of the eight games since the French striker last played, drawing three and losing two.
“It’s extremely nice to see Moussa Dembele back, extremely nice,” Gerrard said.
“When we get Moussa back up in a better place physically and get more minutes into him then I’m sure we’ll carry more of a threat. Moussa Dembele brings goals and assists. The good thing is we have him back. He’s a goalscorer. We’ve missed that quality.”
The former Rangers manager’s comments on the return of Dembele, who netted seven goals in eight Roshn Saudi League matches before his injury at the beginning of October, were echoed by teammate Jack Hendry.
“It’s very big for us to have him back. He’s a figurehead for us up front,” the defender said.
“He’s going to be the key to us winning games and kind of turning our fortunes in the right direction. Moussa’s a proven goalscorer. I played with him at Celtic and I know what he can bring to a team, so to have a figurehead like him up front is going to be important for us moving forward.”
Dembele said: “We will continue to work hard to improve our finishing.”
Ahead of weekend fixtures, Al-Ettifaq — who next play Al-Taawoun at home on Saturday, Dec. 16 — sit eighth in the league table.
“The game as it progressed was certainly there for the taking,” Gerrard said. “When we had a man advantage, we made a tactical change to take a defender off and bring Moussa on to be more aggressive and more opportunities came. We’re a bit frustrated we haven’t gone and taken the big opportunity to go and win the game.
“We’ll continue to grind until we find our rhythm and confidence in the final third, but we want to challenge individuals and the collective to bring more in the final third.”

New era as Women’s U20 ‘Green Falcons’ get their wings

New era as Women’s U20 ‘Green Falcons’ get their wings
Updated 08 December 2023

New era as Women’s U20 ‘Green Falcons’ get their wings

New era as Women’s U20 ‘Green Falcons’ get their wings
  • SAFF has officially announced the formation of the Women’s U20 National Team
  • Scotland’s Pauline Hamill appointed as head coach, bringing over 30 years of experience

RIYADH: A new era in Saudi Arabian football begins with the formation of the Women’s U20 National Team, which is expected to play a crucial role in the development of young footballers in the Kingdom.

This initiative is part of the SAFF’s broader strategy to create sustainable and clear career paths for aspiring women footballers, reflecting a commitment to the growth of the sport at all levels.

The team, comprising talented players from the senior national team and those advancing from the U17 squad, is already engaged in their first training camp. The training camp is currently taking place in Riyadh from 5-11 December 2023. 

“A new chapter in Saudi women’s football begins today with the launch of the U20 National Team. This team is a beacon of hope and opportunity for our young athletes, illuminating the path to international success,”  said Head of the Women’s Football Department at the SAFF Aalia AlRasheed.

“We are confident that under the expert guidance of Pauline Hamill, these young women will not only grow as players but also become role models for future generations. Their journey represents our unwavering commitment to elevating women’s football in Saudi Arabia and on the global stage,” added AlRasheed.

Pauline Hamill, the newly appointed head coach of the U20 team, brings a wealth of experience to the role. Her distinguished career includes playing for the Scotland National team, earning 141 caps over 18 years, and coaching various youth teams within the Scottish FA, including the U15s, U16s, U17s, and the Scotland Women’s U19s National team.

Hamill’s appointment is a significant boost to the team’s prospects and reflects the SAFF’s ambition to compete at the highest levels in future regional and international competitions.

The team is eagerly preparing for its first friendly match in March 2024, a key milestone in their preparation for future competitions.