Allan Saint-Maximin says he is certain the Saudi Pro League will become one of the top competitions in the world in “a couple of years” after making his debut in the competition with Al Ahli on Friday.
The Frenchman, 26, was one of the stars on display in the league’s 2023/24 season opener at Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah, where hosts Ahli defeated Al Hazem 3-1.
Former Liverpool forward Roberto Firmino captained the side and scored all three of his team’s goals, with fellow summer signings Riyad Mahrez, Saint-Maximin, Edouard Mendy, Franck Kessie and Roger Ibanez all starting.
Saint-Maximin, signed last month from Newcastle United for a reported $35 million fee, represents part of Saudi football’s substantial revamp, with players such as Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho joining December recruit Cristiano Ronaldo in the kingdom.
The league has publicly stated its objective to make the Saudi Pro League one of the top 10 domestic competitions in the world.
Ahli, champions Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr, are now majority-owned by the country's Public Investment Fund (PIF). All 18 teams in the league are allowed up to eight foreign players in their squad.
Speaking after Friday's opening victory, Saint-Maximin said: “This league in a couple of years is going to be one of the top leagues – I’m sure about that. You can see there are so many good players. So if you put in all the teams eight top players you can be sure the league is going to be very good.
“You know the teams like Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, us, we’re going to have a big fight against [each other]. And when we look at Al Ettifaq, there are many players like [Jordan] Henderson, Moussa Dembele, so you know many more players and even young players are going to come to Saudi.
“And I just want to say thanks to them because they completely changed my life. I will be so grateful of them to give me that opportunity.
Ahli, three-time Saudi champions, are back in the league following last season's First Division title success – the only campaign in their history spent outside the top tier.
Saint-Maximin, who excelled on his debut, said he has been taken aback by the fan reaction to his move. On Friday, he was seen pre-match capturing video of the Ahli supporters on his phone.
“I didn’t expect that to be honest,” he said. “I heard many things about the fans, I saw many videos. But I didn’t know what I was going to see.
“But straight away I saw the music, my name [being sung] and everything. So I just want to say thanks to the fans, and I think I gave something good to them tonight on the pitch.
“That’s my job. And I will keep playing with my quality and I hope they’re going to enjoy the season with me.”
Saint-Maximin spent almost four years at Newcastle, making 111 appearances following his move from Nice in 2019. However, last season injury restricted him to only 12 league starts as the club, who are also majority owned by PIF, finished fourth and thus qualified for the Uefa Champions League for the first time in 20 years.
Asked about Newcastle’s fans, Saint-Maximin said: “I love them. That’s life, sometimes. As I always said, the most important is the fans and the club.
“I’m not bigger than the club. If the club think that’s the best option for them and, for sure, Al Ahli gave me a great opportunity as well.
“If both parties are happy with that and if this can help Newcastle to finish in a better position or to win something this season, I will be very happy.
“Newcastle supporters will always stay in my heart. I always think about them because they gave me everything. And without them I will never have that opportunity to sign in Al Ahli.
“I’m a guy who never forgets and I hope they never forget what I gave to them.”