Al Hilal defender Kalidou Koulibaly says he has been surprised by the calibre of Saudi Arabian footballers since his arrival in the kingdom, insisting some could easily excel in Europe.
The Senegal centre-back, 32, moved to the Saudi Pro League this summer from Premier League side Chelsea on a three-year deal. Koulibaly has seemingly settled well, helping Hilal go unbeaten in their opening four league matches.
Record 18-time Saudi champions, on Friday Hilal face the sternest challenge of the season thus far, when they face current league holders Al Ittihad away in Jeddah. The match, pitting against one another the country’s two most successful clubs, is known as the Saudi “Clasico”.
Speaking on the eve of the much-anticipated encounter, Koulibaly was asked by The National what surprised him the most since switching the English top-flight for its Saudi counterpart.
“It’s really the level of the Saudi players,” he said. “I talked about it with some players who played here, like [French striker Bafetimbi] Gomis who played in Hilal, and the first thing he tells me is that if you are not 100 per cent forget everything, because you won't be at the level they are wanting and then you will have a hard time.
“It was really true. Because I came here, and I see some players that have the same level as some players in Europe. I won't say the best ones in Europe, but you have some. Some of the players here can play in good teams in Europe.
“Maybe they miss a little bit of [tactical nous], a little bit of like thinking with the head. But, for the rest, I think there’s a lot of intelligent players, like [Hilal and Saudi Arabia winger] Salem [Al Dawsari] – he is an amazing player.
“I was really impressed when I saw him in training here. So, a lot of Hilal players are at the level of football in Europe and can easily play in Europe.”
Koulibaly, who prior to Chelsea spent eight celebrated years with Serie A side Napoli, is one of many high-profile players to join the Saudi Pro League (SPL) this summer. The kingdom’s top tier has recently undergone a huge revamp, with the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Sadio Mane, Fabinho and Jordan Henderson joining this transfer window.
Koulibaly, who captained Senegal to last year’s Africa Cup of Nations title, says the SPL’s profile outside of the continent will only continue to grow as more prominent additions are made to the league.
“I'm sorry that [in Europe] we miss sometimes to be interested in the Saudi league, because in Asia it is really important and when you speak about a team of Saudi Arabia everybody knows them.
“This is the difference, because in Europe you are interested about European football. The Saudi league is less [popular] but that’s absolutely normal. Here, everybody knows that it is tough and hard to play in the Saudi league.
“So, you’ll see everybody will now be interested to watch the Saudi league, because every player coming here.”