When the new Saudi Pro League season kicks off on Friday, it will herald a new dawn for football in the Gulf kingdom which has spent close to half a billion dollars luring top players and coaches from traditional European powerhouses.
Last season, Al-Ahli and Al-Hazm were in the second division, but the two clubs will meet in the league’s opener with fans around the world tuning in to see star-studded sides that seemed like a distant dream only a year ago.
Al-Ahli, in particular, is one of the few clubs that has benefited from the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) project to invest in and privatise clubs, which also includes reigning champions Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr.
On Friday, one could forgive Al-Ahli fans for rubbing their eyes in disbelief when they see Champions League winners like Riyad Mahrez, Edouard Mendy and Roberto Firmino line up in their team’s shirt after the club’s return to the top-flight.
Saudi clubs spent nearly 450 million euros in the close season signing players, most from elite teams in Europe as the PIF created a blueprint for what football fans can expect in transfer windows to come.
The league turned heads when Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr last season soon after the World Cup in a deal which made him the highest-paid athlete on the planet.
The Portugal forward’s move paved the way for more household names to sign up for a Saudi league that has increased its size from 16 teams to 18.
Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr lost out on the title to Al-Ittihad, who wasted no time in reinforcing its team, with coach Nuno Espirito Santo bringing in Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and Jota.
But Al-Ittihad will face stiff competition for the title from Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal this season.
Runners-up Al-Nassr brought in Croatia midfielder Marcelo Brozovic from Inter Milan while Brazilian defender Alex Telles arrived from Manchester United.
But it made a statement signing by adding Sadio Mane to its attacking lineup, with the unhappy Senegal forward leaving Bayern Munich after one season.
Despite the big names coming in, Al-Nassr’s new coach Luis Castro insisted that these deals are not a guarantee of success.
“Some are trying to lead us on by talking about the many stars in the team,” he said. “But the message must reach everyone, which is that Al-Nassr win thanks to the group, not the individuals.”
Al-Hilal reappointed Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus on a one-year deal and attracted former Wolverhampton Wanderers captain Ruben Neves, Serbia’s Sergei Milinkovic-Savic and defender Kalidou Koulibaly to the club.
Despite also signing former Barcelona forward Malcom, Al-Hilal is still seeking the icing on the cake as the Riyadh-based club looks to sign a striker before the transfer window closes on Sept. 7.
Liverpool fans saw their two most influential captains of the past two decades team up and move to Saudi Arabia, with Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson joining Al-Ettifaq, who play Al-Nassr in its opening fixture on Monday.
Gerrard became the first English coach to sign a permanent contract in the league while Henderson’s move invited criticism as the England midfielder was a vocal advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia.
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