The Push-and-Pull Battle to Keep the Saudi Pro League Relevant

With several star footballers that made the move to the Saudi Pro League expressing their displeasure in their new setting, a battle to keep the league relevant has emerged amongst its top players.

It’s long been a known goal of the Saudi Arabian government to increase the country’s global profile and standing through sport. A variety of different sports have seen massive events and shows take place in the nation. Boxing, MMA, golf, the WWE; the abundance of demand and money spilling out of Saudi Arabia has and will continue to make it a prime candidate to play host for one-off events for a myriad of sporting organizations.

Football currently plays a massive role in this.

The summer of 2023 saw an unprecedented amount of high-profile names make the switch from various European top leagues to the Saudi Pro League. Karim Benzema, Ngolo Kante, Sadio Mane, Neymar, and Cristiano Ronaldo are just a few of the megastars that have been playing their football in the Middle East in the 2023-24 season. These moves, along with countless other additions in the form of both players and managers, have been made to not only increase the quality of the league, but to bring more eyes to Saudi Arabia and its product.

However, there’s seemingly been trouble in paradise for a growing number of these stars. Despite the glitz, glam, and gargantuan wages, something about the culture and football in the Saudi Pro League just hasn’t done it for them.

Jordan Henderson is the latest in a conveyer belt of players who have reportedly voiced their displeasure about playing in the Saudi League. His malcontent materialized swiftly as it was confirmed this week that he has made the switch to Dutch giants Ajax on a two-and-half-year deal after less than six months at Al-Ettifaq.

His move to Saudi had plenty of money behind it, with a reported salary of nearly $900,000 a week. However, it resulted in little by way of results for either party. It certainly didn’t help that attendance at Al-Ettifaq games, and the vast majority of Saudi Pro League games for that matter, is worryingly low for the size of the stadiums. Many of the clubs in the league average significantly fewer spectators per match than their grandiose stadiums account for, which isn’t exactly the rowdy morale boost much of the players will be accustomed to from their supporters.

Sergej Milinković-Savić and Karim Benzema are the two other big names who want out in the January transfer window according to several reports, but without further confirmation those remain speculation as things stand.

Former Manchester City and Spain international defender Aymeric Laporte recently spoke out on the disillusionment of many players in the Saudi League, stating that many are unhappy with their current situations.

On the whole, there is seemingly not only an issue with the standard of play in Saudi, but the quality of life for the players as well.

Laporte’s perspective is perhaps the most interesting as he is teammates with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr. In a recent interview, the Portuguese superstar came to the league’s defense, claiming, “The Saudi League is not worse than France’s league.” Ronaldo went on to laud Saudi Pro as being more competitive while still having room to improve.

Sadio Mane, also with Al-Nassr, was singing from the same hymn sheet, stating, “Fortunately, I can say the Saudi League is a very good league, and watched by everybody in the world, so, for me, as long as I’m doing my best and I’m enjoying myself every single minute, that’s more important.”

While it’s encouraging for supporters of Saudi Pro to see two of its biggest stars rave about the high level of football, you wouldn’t exactly expect them to bash the league and the employers who currently pay their gaudy salaries.

Perception is a massive thing in football, and like it or not, the Saudi League is still not viewed as a high level of football by the worldwide majority, despite Ronaldo’s recent claims. Many footballers who made the switch in recent years are still in their prime years, some were even nailed-on starters for their countries at the time of their move.

With the EUROs and Copa America taking place this summer, another big factor for these players considering their stance is their potential place in their international squads when these big tournaments roll around.

Henderson is the biggest example of this. While England boss Gareth Southgate has developed a reputation for playing his “favorite” players regardless of their standing and performance at their clubs, Henderson was undoubtedly staring down the barrel of EURO squad exclusion if he didn’t make the move away from Saudi Pro.

Looking towards the future, there may well be more players who decide life in Saudi Arabia isn’t for them. Some will want to return to Europe or elsewhere for a higher level of football while others may seek a switch that improves the quality of life for themselves and their families.

However, the almighty dollar is the great equalizer.

For every big name that may decide to leave the Saudi Pro League, the near-endless budget of the league will be a constant eye-catcher for players at every level. Don’t expect the conveyor belt of new players to stop anytime soon.

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