Saudi Arabia’s billion-dollar Pro League, with few fireworks and no international silverware, still a work in progress

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None of the Saudi teams reached the Asian Champions League final, hosts Al Ittihad exited in the second round of the Club World Cup in Jeddah, and Roberto Mancini’s Saudi national side lost in the Asian Cup’s last 16.

Al Hilal won their 68th official trophy after collecting their 19th Saudi Pro League title on Saturday. Photo: AFP

Al Hilal were so dominant that they won 34 consecutive games in all competitions – a record for a top-flight team – and remain unbeaten in the Pro League.

Victories of 9-0, 7-0 and 6-1 highlighted the gulf between Al Hilal, one of four clubs bought last year by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s oil-funded sovereign wealth vehicle, and the rest.

Al Hilal, Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, Riyad Mahrez’s Al Ahli and Al Ittihad, Benzema’s new employers, occupy four of the top five positions in the league table.

“The lack of a proper distribution of players among all the teams created a clear gap between the big and small teams and killed the competition in favor of Al Hilal,” Mohamed Mandour, a Paris-based journalist from the Sportsdata website, told AFP.

The league’s administrators, also newly hired, say it is a long-term project and it will take time to reach their goal: becoming one of the world’s top five domestic competitions by metrics such as quality of players, stadium attendances and commercial success.

Already on the horizon is 2034, when Saudi Arabia, keen to present a new image and prepare for the post-oil era, becomes the second Gulf country to host the World Cup, after neighbors Qatar in 2022.

Last summer’s US$957 million spent on players, second only to the English Premier League and unheard of in Saudi football, has undoubtedly drawn extra interest to the competition, even if it has yet to hit the heights.

French forward Karim Benzema has had difficulties settling in at Al Ittihad. Photo: AFP

At a recent game in Riyadh, Ahmed Osama, an Egyptian living in Saudi, sat happily with his two children watching Al Nassr and Ronaldo, 39, a footballing legend at the tail-end of his career.

“We came just to see Ronaldo, whom they both love,” Osama, 40, told AFP, adding that his children aged nine and six choose Al Nassr, rather than Barcelona or Real Madrid, when playing PlayStation.

Suddenly hiring a raft of star players is not a simple endeavor and teething problems have included Benzema’s difficulties settling at Al Ittihad and Ronaldo being fined for an offensive gesture on the pitch.

Former Liverpool player Jordan Henderson left Al Ettifaq for Ajax after just six months in the Pro League, whose late-night starts, high temperatures and often empty stadiums can prove unappetizing for players.

In April, a fan in traditional Saudi dress produced a long whip and struck Al Ittihad’s Abderrazak Hamdallah after arguing with the striker from the stands.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at France’s SKEMA Business School, said it takes years to build the kind of profile enjoyed by the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga.

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Professor Simon Chadwick says Saudi football “still has a lot of work to do”. Photo:

“Saudi Arabian football must get used to the fact that money and players alone are insufficient to guarantee perpetual success,” he told AFP.

“This season Saudi Arabian football has rather drifted on and off the radars of football fans,” Chadwick added.

“It can’t be that way. As La Liga and the Premier League show, engagement is a 24/7/365 phenomenon. Saudi football still has a lot of work to do.”

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Saudi Arabias billiondollar Pro League fireworks international silverware work progress

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