Saudi Pro League kicks off, hoping world is watching
RIYADH – The Saudi Pro League kicks off on Friday amid unprecedented attention on Saudi football following a year of high-profile transfers and growing accusations of “sportswashing”.
Clubs in the oil-rich Gulf state have lured global stars, with Karim Benzema, Jordan Henderson and Sadio Mane among those following in Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps.
In July, Al-Hilal made a €300 million (S$443.8 million) bid for Kylian Mbappe, though the Paris Saint-Germain striker reportedly refused to meet with officials from the club.
Eighteen clubs will take part in the league, with each allowed eight foreign players.
“Saudi Arabia aspires to be like the English Premier League,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School in Paris.
“The media is paying attention. People are now asking the question – where can I watch the Saudi Pro League?”
On Wednesday, DAZN secured the rights to stream Saudi Pro League matches for a two-year period in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Belgium and Canada.
In Singapore, SPOTV announced on Tuesday that it had secured broadcast rights for the next two seasons and the channel is available on both Singtel and StarHub.
Just five years after allowing its first non-Muslim tourists and letting women drive, Saudi Arabia is attempting to open up its conservative, long-cloistered society to the world.
The world’s biggest oil exporter has thrown hundreds of millions at sports deals including Ronaldo’s capture, Formula One in Jeddah and the lucrative LIV Golf tour, drawing frequent claims it is “sportswashing” its human rights record.
It is all part of grand plans by the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to modernise the Saudi economy and remove its reliance on oil before the world moves on to other fuels.
Moqbel Al-Zabni, editor-in-chief of the Saudi capital’s Al Riyadiah newspaper, said that the kingdom wants “the compass of professional football to point to the Middle East and the Arab world”.
Ronaldo’s arrival in January to play for the Riyadh-based Al-Nassr club is what first drew global attention to ongoing efforts to boost the Saudi Pro League.
The kingdom is offering eye-watering salaries that have lured celebrity players, rising stars and top coaches.
Besides Ronaldo, Benzema, Henderson and Mane, some other big names include Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante, Ruben Neves, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino, while Steven Gerrard is the coach of Al-Ettifaq.
“I’ve worked in sport for 40 years and I’ve never seen a project as big, as ambitious and as determined to be a success,” said British director Peter Hutton, who sits on the league’s board.
However, the kingdom still faces a series of challenges before it could rise to the helm of global football, as Chadwick also said that Saudi football is still “very much a work in progress”.
“We’re probably looking at the next five to ten years before determining whether there is a long-term sustainable and fundamental change,” the professor added.
One test, he said, will be Saudi clubs’ performances in the Asian Champions League.
A second test will be the extent to which the Saudi Pro League can sustain long-term engagement from football fans, who fly from all the world to watch the English Premier League.
“Is it going to be the same in Saudi Arabia?“ Chadwick asked.
“Are we going to see Chinese tourists heading to Riyadh or are we going to see German tourists heading (there) together to watch football?“ - AFP, REUTERS