Saudi Pro League unveils bold new strategy led by director of football Michael Emenalo

Former Chelsea executive spearheads Saudi football revolution based on youth development and smarter player recruitment

Karim Benzema is unveiled to fans by Saudi Pro League champions Al Ittihad in June 2023. Reuters
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After a summer that has already seen numerous high-profile signings join the Saudi Pro League, the competition’s governing body announced on Tuesday the launch of a new long-term strategy to transform football in the kingdom.

According to the SPL, the new strategy will see the league build its commercial value and harness the soaring interest in the competition to maximise revenue from broadcasting rights, while ensuring sustained growth into one of the top ten leagues in the world.

The influx of talent into the country is driven in part by a huge spending spree led by the Public Investment Fund, which had earlier acquired a majority stake in the nation’s top-four clubs; Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.

The new SPL strategy aims to regulate and streamline this player recruitment process to ensure it continues into the next few seasons while adhering to financial fair play rules.

A programme called the “Player Acquisition Centre of Excellence” has been set up and will be led by Michael Emenalo, the former technical director at Chelsea, who has been appointed as the league’s first director of football.

Emenalo is a former left-back who represented Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup before making his mark at Stamford Bridge as a shrewd operator under Roman Abramovich, the former owner of the West London club.

During his decade-long tenure at Chelsea, Emenalo brought in talents such as Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, while also playing a role in revamping the overall recruitment and scouting structure at the club.

In his first statement after being appointed, Emenalo could not hide his excitement about the project.

“I believe this is a role that I’ve spent the last 45 years preparing for,” said the 58-year-old.

“I am intrigued by the audacity of the project and the ambition. This project has been in the making for a while. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision, it's well thought out. I’m impressed by the knowledge and input that’s gone into it.”

Saudi Pro League top signings so far

One of the main concerns raised as SPL clubs continue their pursuit of top talents from across Europe was the loss of development opportunities for the local players on which the national team relies in the absence of any Saudi players competing in major leagues abroad. To address this issue, the new SPL strategy features regulatory changes relating to youth players in the league.

Starting from the 2023/24 season, the minimum eligibility age to compete in the SPL has been reduced from 18 to 16, while the following season will see clubs required to register ten players under the age of 21 in their 35-man seasonal squads. Additionally, clubs are mandated to include eight “home-grown” players who are graduates of the club academies within their main roster, of whom four should be direct graduates from the club’s system.

Key among SPL’s strategic objectives is the ambition to become one of the top ten leagues in the world.

While there is no official worldwide ranking of domestic leagues, the Saudi Pro League currently sits at the top of the Asian Football Confederation's most recent Asian domestic competitions rankings, marginally ahead of Japan’s J1 League, with the caveat that this ranking only takes into account the performance of clubs from each league in Asian competitions, so it does not necessarily reflect quality across the league, especially at the bottom half.

London based sports consultancy Twenty First Group has developed its own model to compare leagues, and it places the Saudi Pro League in 58th place, slightly behind the Scottish Premiership. The top ten ranking cited by SPL officials in the strategy would place the league alongside the likes of the English Football League's Championship, the Brazilian Serie A, and the Mexican Liga MX.

Al Nassr captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who was the first mega star to make the move to Saudi Arabia back in January, had earlier said the league can even be one of the top five worldwide within a few years.

Speaking to journalists during the team’s training camp in his native Portugal on Monday, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner doubled down on his comments, arguing the SPL is already a superior league to Major League Soccer, the North American competition where his arch-rival Lionel Messi now plies his trade for Inter Miami.

The new SPL campaign kicks-off on August 11 with Al Ahli, who should include summer signings Roberto Firmino and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, taking on newly promoted Al Hazem.

Current champions Al Ittihad, featuring the reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema alongside his compatriot N’Golo Kante and former Celtic winger Jota, travel to Al Raed on the 14th, while Ronaldo’s Al Nassr face Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq on the same day. Fifa Club World Cup runners-up Al Hilal, boasting the likes of Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, are away at Abha.

Updated: July 31, 2023, 9:53 AM