2023-24 Saudi Pro League review: The hits and misses

2023-24 Saudi Pro League review: The hits and misses
Aleksandar Mitrovic has proven to be an inspired signing for Al-Hilal during the 2023-24 season. (SPL)
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Updated 05 June 2024

2023-24 Saudi Pro League review: The hits and misses

2023-24 Saudi Pro League review: The hits and misses
  • Hilal, Mitrovic and Ronaldo emerge with praise while it has been a season to forget for Al-Ittihad and Neymar

A Saudi Arabian football season for the ages is in the can.

With the eyes of the world directed toward the Kingdom after last summer’s revolutionary transfer spree, we witnessed Al-Hilal in all-conquering form, Al-Nassr icon Cristiano Ronaldo showcase his evergreen abilities, and much more.

Here, Arab News dissects the high and lows from an unforgettable 2023-24:

Best team: Al-Hilal

Al-Hilal not only produced Saudi Arabia’s strongest campaign, but one of the greatest in football history.

Their numbers were staggering. The returning Jorge Jesus orchestrated a clean domestic sweep of Saudi Super Cup, Roshn Saudi League and King Cup; a World Record 34-consecutive victories across all competitions; won 31 out of 34 top-flight fixtures, netting 101 goals and conceding just 23.

They had to be this good to repeatedly disappoint 2023-24’s finest performer.

Best player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Al-Nassr)

Ronaldo stood tallest, even amid an injection of world-class talent.

A final-night brace against long-dethroned champions Al-Ittihad — emphatically celebrated — set a new benchmark for goals in a RSL season, with 35. Only Al-Ahli’s Riyad Mahrez (13) and compatriot Ruben Neves (12) bettered his 11 assists.

Moments of unmatched quality and unquenched desire underlined the 39-year-old’s merciless ability to defy the waning effects of time, especially November’s ludicrous lob against Al-Okhdood. There was even opportunity to collect four RSL match-balls, for hat-tricks.

Best Saudi player: Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal)

Saud Abdulhamid deserved to head this prestigious list for unleashing a trademark ‘‘chair” celebration in April’s heated King’s Cup semifinal versus boyhood club Al-Ittihad, let alone his imperious 2023-24 displays.

The ceaseless 24-year-old right-back looked effortlessly at ease amid a stellar new cast. A career-best three league goals, also, equalled his tally from all prior campaigns.

Links to Ligue 1’s Toulouse provided a tantalising glimpse of a global future for this defender, who overshadowed celebrated colleague Salem Al-Dawsari and Al-Ahli’s 17-goal striker Firas Al-Buraikan.

Best coach: Pericles Chamusca (Al-Taawoun)

It takes something special to outshine Al-Hilal’s Jesus.

Pericles Chamusca delivered this for dark-horses Al-Taawoun. The gregarious Brazilian defied a slew of summer exits headlined by assist-machine Kaku and versatile Saudi Arabia defender Hassan Kadesh, plus winter sale of influential Spanish midfielder Alvaro Medran.

Amid this maelstrom, a fourth-placed finish — five-points ahead of fallen giants Al-Ittihad — secured AFC Champions League Two qualification. He departs to ambitious Yelo League-outfit NEOM SC with head held high.

Best goal: Bernard Mensah (Al-Tai 1-4 Al-Ahli)

Take your pick from Bernard Mensah’s monumental campaign at relegated Al-Tai.

February’s George Weah-esque run from deep through several Al-Ahli defenders and pin-point low finish past Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy just edges May’s logic-defying slaloming run through a packed penalty box against Al-Fateh.

Best signing: Aleksandar Mitrovic (Al-Hilal)

An addition who was worth the wait.

Al-Hilal spent all summer haggling with Fulham for their colossal Serbia center forward. This push was rewarded by 40 goals in 43 games, including an early King Cup final opener, hat-trick in September’s emblematic 4-3 victory at holders Al-Ittihad and brace in December’s 3-0 Riyadh Derby triumph versus Al-Nassr.

This prized eye-for-goal, plus an unquantifiable indefatigable nature, helped to move Mitrovic beyond team-mates Malcom and Neves, plus Al-Nassr’s Marcelo Brozovic, Al-Ahli’s Franck Kessie and Al-Fayha’s Fashion Sakala.

Worst signing: Habib Diallo (Al-Shabab)

Eighth-placed Al-Shabab’s season to forget was exemplified by Diallo’s travails.

The recruit from Strasbourg struck only six times in 30 league run-outs, also enduring a near five-month goal drought between his second and third strikes.

This middling contribution by the Senegal striker ranked lower than then-England captain Jordan Henderson’s brief sojourn at Ettifaq and a heart-breaking early end to a Brazil megastar’s campaign.

Biggest disappointment (Neymar — Al-Hilal)

Events on the other side of the globe reverberated in the Kingdom.

October’s catastrophic knee injury incurred by Neymar on World Cup 2026-qualifying duty for Brazil brought a shuddering halt to his Al-Hilal duties. This burst the rampant excitement generated by August’s epic unveiling in Riyadh, on arrival from Paris Saint-Germain.

The maverick Brazil forward only played three RSL games and netted a solitary AFC Champions League effort. There should be so much more to come in 2024-25.

Season to forget: Al-Ittihad

Things can only get better for Al-Ittihad after a dismal RSL title defense.

A quantum leap had been predicted once the end of a 14-year top-flight trophy wait was followed by the additions of Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, France midfielder N’Golo Kante and Brazil anchorman Fabinho. RSL-winning manager Nuno Espirito Santo, however, departed in October with his deflated squad a distant sixth.

Coveted replacement Marcelo Gallardo then endured a one-sided 3-1 thumping by Egypt’s Al-Ahly in Jeddah during December’s Club World Cup’s quarter-finals, with the trophy-less team limping home fifth — 42 points behind Al-Hilal — and outside AFC Champions League Elite qualification. A disrupted campaign also saw Benzema net just 16 times in 33 run-outs.

Funniest moment: Noureddine Zekri’s survival celebration

A bewildered Sadio Mane came close with a hilarious pre-match double-take after seeing club-mate Ali Lajami’s mirror image of twin Qassem, in Al-Fateh’s line-up.

But nothing beats Noureddine Zekri’s iconic reaction to keeping debutants Al-Okhdood up. The 59-year-old manager went viral with a slow-motion run across the pitch and “superman” flop at the final whistle of matchweek 34’s relegation-decider at doomed Al-Tai.

Ones to watch: (Al-Qadsiah)

A club owned by Saudi Aramco are expected to make a big splash in 2024-25.

Dominant Yelo League winners Al-Qadsiah emphasized their expectant status last month by beating Roma to Uruguay midfielder Nahitan Nandez’s signature, with much more to come.

A repeat of promoted Al-Ahli’s charge to third is not out of the question, judging by early impressions. Their recent reputation as a yo-yo outfit should be shredded.

Moussa Diaby joins Al-Ittihad from Aston Villa

Moussa Diaby joins Al-Ittihad from Aston Villa
Updated 25 July 2024

Moussa Diaby joins Al-Ittihad from Aston Villa

Moussa Diaby joins Al-Ittihad from Aston Villa
  • Moussa Diaby joins fellow Frenchmen Karim Benzema and Ngolo Kante in Jeddah

RIYADH: Frenchman Moussa Diaby has joined Al-Ittihad, the club announced on Thursday.
The Jeddah team posted an announcement video with the player wearing Ittihad’s black and yellow jersey.
He will join the Tigers on a five-year contract after successfully passing a medical exam in Alicante, Spain, a club statement said.
“Hello Tigers, I am here,” Diaby announces in the video, holding a vintage rotary phone.
“I am thrilled to join Al-Ittihad and be part of a project that aims to build a strong team reflecting the club’s rich history and values. I look forward to collaborating with my new teammates to achieve victories and bring joy to our dedicated fans,” said the Frenchman.
“Diaby has an impressive track record, having played in the top leagues of France, Germany, and England, where he has showcased his talent and skill as a winger,” the statement read.
Domingos Oliveira, the CEO of Ittihad, said: “Our sports committee identified the need to strengthen the winger position with an exceptional player, and we are confident that Moussa Diaby is one of the top players who stand out globally in this role.”
The 25-year-old midfielder played 54 games for English Premier League side Aston Villa, including 25 appearances last season during their impressive fourth place finish.
In Spain, the player was welcomed by the team’s sporting director, Ramon Planes, and introduced to his new teammates and the technical and administrative staff.
He joins fellow Frenchmen Karim Benzema and Ngolo Kante in the west coast city.
The left-footed Diaby, a pacy and versatile player, is not known for scoring lots of goals but his attacking threat will be an advantage for the Tigers.
Ittihad had a disappointing season last year with a fifth place finish, after winning the Saudi Pro League title a year earlier.
The Jeddah side has brought in veteran French player Laurent Blanc as coach to boost their chances against the other big three clubs in the SPL: Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli.
Ittihad are currently in pre-season training in Spain and will play Seville on Friday.

IMG signs 5-year deal to become broadcast producer of Saudi soccer events

IMG signs 5-year deal to become broadcast producer of Saudi soccer events
Updated 24 July 2024

IMG signs 5-year deal to become broadcast producer of Saudi soccer events

IMG signs 5-year deal to become broadcast producer of Saudi soccer events
  • The partnership with the Saudi Pro League and Saudi Arabian Football Federation will start next season and cover Roshn Saudi League, Saudi Super Cup and King Cup matches
  • ‘The SPL is poised to deliver an unparalleled football-viewing experience to fans around the world through technology, innovation and talent,’ says SPL CEO Omar Mugharbel

RIYADH: The Saudi Pro League and Saudi Arabian Football Federation have agreed a new five-year production-partnership deal with global sports, events and representation company IMG.
Beginning next season IMG will take the role of broadcast producer for the Roshn Saudi League, King Cup and Saudi Super Cup, with the aim of providing best-in-class production quality, innovation and consistency across the events.
The organizations said on Wednesday said that broadcasts in coming seasons will feature more dynamic storytelling and captivating content highlighting the excitement of the matches and celebrating the culture and passion that drive the sport.
This will enable partners to provide deeper insights and elevate the levels of engagement and entertainment, they added, to enhance the viewing experience for fans around the world and foster a deeper connection with the league.
SPL CEO Omar Mugharbel said the agreement represents a significant step forward for the league as its transformation and growth continues on and off the pitch.
“Our collaboration with IMG reflects our commitment to bringing world-class production standards to Saudi football, with the league the central host producer,” he added.
“By leveraging the expertise of IMG and maintaining strong partnerships with local and regional distributors, the SPL is poised to deliver an unparalleled football-viewing experience to fans around the world through technology, innovation and talent.”
Barney Francis, IMG’s executive vice president of studios, said: “The Saudi Pro League is one of the most exciting and fastest-growing leagues in global football, with fans around the world now tuning in to watch thrilling action between some of the game’s biggest stars.
“In today’s battle for attention, it’s critical for rights holders to take control of their narrative and innovate. We are excited to help SPL take its content offering and storytelling to the next level for viewers and broadcasters, and to provide opportunities for local broadcast and production talent to be part of the journey.”
The organizations said IMG will help the SPL and SAFF implement advanced remote-production technologies so that producers can oversee matches taking place in several cities on the same day and ensure the highest production standards are maintained regardless of location.
IMG produces content for some of the world’s biggest football leagues and other sporting events, including the English Premier League, Major League Soccer for Apple TV, CBS coverage of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League, Ultimate Fighting Championship, and golf events including The Open, Ryder Cup and the DP World Tour.

Diogo Jota says Riyadh Esports World Cup ‘a truly amazing experience’

Diogo Jota says Riyadh Esports World Cup ‘a truly amazing experience’
Updated 22 July 2024

Diogo Jota says Riyadh Esports World Cup ‘a truly amazing experience’

Diogo Jota says Riyadh Esports World Cup ‘a truly amazing experience’
  • Liverpool and Portugal star, an avid gamer and investor, watched all the ‘Dota2 Riyadh Masters’ and ‘Counter-Strike 2’ action, and met esports players

RIYADH: Diogo Jota, the Liverpool and Portugal footballer, who attended the Esports World Cup in Riyadh on Sunday, has declared the globe’s largest gaming festival “a truly amazing experience.”

Jota, an avid gamer and investor in multinational esports organization Galaxy Racer, watched all the action at Boulevard Riyadh City as teams contested the finals of the “Dota2 Riyadh Masters” and “Counter-Strike 2” competitions.

The eight-week Esports World Cup features a unique cross-game structure pitting the top clubs and players against one another across 22 competitions in 21 leading games.

Held within the 8,000-capacity Saudi Esports Federation Arena at Boulevard Riyadh City, it runs until Aug. 25 and has a tournament prize pool of $60 million, the largest in the history of the sport.

The attacker, who has 42 caps and played for Portugal at the UEFA Euro 2024 this summer, met participating stars, including from Saudi Arabia’s Team Falcons, and happily swapped gaming and esports stories.

Jota said: “Being here at the inaugural Esports World Cup is a truly amazing experience. The organization and scale behind this event are truly impressive, even more than I anticipated.

“I’ve always believed in the potential of esports, even before starting my own team, and EWC is proof that this scene is evolving rapidly. This level of investment and infrastructure is exactly what esports needs to grow and reach a wider audience.

“I’m excited to see how EWC continues to evolve and push the boundaries of competitive gaming.”

Jota, who wears the No. 20 for Liverpool, was ranked world No. 1 in FIFA 21’s Champions Leaderboard. A regular streamer on Twitch, he also won an invitational series of FIFA matches, run by the Premier League, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then a Wolverhampton Wanderers player, Jota defeated future Liverpool team-mate Trent Alexander-Arnold in the final.

Last year, Jota’s own esports organization, Diogo Jota Esports, was rebranded to Luna Galaxy — coming under the Galaxy Racer umbrella.

Prior to this, Diogo Jota Esports participated in the FIFAe Finals at Gamers8, organized by the Saudi Esports Federation, at Boulevard Riyadh City last summer, with Daniel “DFernandes” Fernandes finishing in the top 16.

More than 1,500 players, of over 60 nationalities, are battling it out at the inaugural Esports World Cup. Week three of the competition features action in the “Dota2 Riyadh Masters,” “Counter Strike 2,” and “PUBG Mobile” contests.

SAFF launches first edition of Regional Under-13 Championship in Taif

SAFF launches first edition of Regional Under-13 Championship in Taif
Updated 21 July 2024

SAFF launches first edition of Regional Under-13 Championship in Taif

SAFF launches first edition of Regional Under-13 Championship in Taif
  • Top talents from academies across 14 cities, provinces, and regions are featuring in the tournament
  • The competition will provide valuable experience for young up-and-coming referees who have been selected from SAFF Referees’ Academy

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has launched the first edition of the Regional Under-13 Championship in Taif, running from July 18–30.

Currently in its third day, the 12-day tournament features 14 regional teams, showcasing top talents from academies across 14 cities, provinces, and regions.

The 14 regional teams competing in the championship are from Al-Ahsa, Jazan, Najran, Jouf, Hail, Al-Qassim, the Eastern Province, Riyadh, Jeddah, Asir, Madinah, Makkah, Hafar Al-Batin, and Tabuk.

SAFF’s Technical Director Nasser Larguet said: “The championship represents the result of the significant work supported by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, and the outcome is the creation of the Regional Under-13 League. Clear goals and strategic plans have been set to discover and support young talents.”

Additionally, the tournament will provide valuable experience for young up-and-coming referees, who have been selected from the SAFF Referees’ Academy, further contributing to the development of skilled officials in the sport.

Manuel Navarro, president of the SAFF Referees Committee, said: “The Regional Under-13 Championship is an opportunity to develop promising referees, especially since it will witness the participation of 32 young referees. The committee aims to increase their refereeing hours and enhance their experience.”

This tournament is a significant part of SAFF’s strategy to scout and develop over 4,000 young talents by 2025, supporting the growth and future of Saudi football.

Al-Ittihad unveils new kit for 2024-25 season

Al-Ittihad unveils new kit for 2024-25 season
Updated 20 July 2024

Al-Ittihad unveils new kit for 2024-25 season

Al-Ittihad unveils new kit for 2024-25 season
  • The classic striped design in yellow and black is based on the Nike shirt, with its authentic heritage
  • The kit’s new design represents the architectural style “Rawashin”

JEDDAH: Al-Ittihad FC has unveiled its kit for the 2024/25 season in collaboration with Nike.

Al-Ittihad presented its distinctive new kit in photo sessions in the center of historic Jeddah, among its alleys and ancient buildings, in cooperation with Al-Balad Development Company, the club’s official sponsor.

The classic striped design in yellow and black is based on the Nike shirt, with its authentic heritage, which fans have loved and celebrated for 97 years.

The kit’s new design represents the architectural style, “Rawashin,” the prominent traditional wooden panels used to cover windows and external openings at the old houses of Jeddah — considered an icon of the city’s heritage.

Domingos De Oliveira, CEO of Al-Ittihad Club, described the new kit as a symbol of the club’s history: “We worked closely with Nike in order to ensure access to the best that can be presented in the new kit, while preserving the established values of the basic kit, which represents a unique identity, after maintaining it for nearly a century.

“In the new kit, we worked to blend the heritage of Al-Ittihad Club with the history of the region from which it started, with a modern spirit that creates innovation in order to emerge with a product that reflects the club’s vision of starting from the base of its great history toward more glory and development in the current era and the future.

“Attention was paid to all the details in terms of the degree of color and their overlapping in the dividing line between them in the same way that the wooden columns in the Rawashin buildings of Jeddah are intertwined.”

For the first time, the home kit will be presented in three categories — the official home kit, which the players will wear, the stadium category, and the fans category.