Saudi Pro League: How underdogs Al Shabab plan to challenge richer rivals

Overachieving Riyadh club relying on pragmatism after a summer which has seen their four biggest rivals recruit several high-profile players

Al Shabab held Cristiano Ronaldo's Al Nassr to a goalless draw in the King Salman Cup. AFP
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As the sun set on the first Monday of June, football fans across Saudi Arabia tuned in to watch as the Ministry of Sport announced drastic changes to the domestic football scene, starting with the Public Investment Fund acquiring a majority stake in the nation’s top four clubs.

Excitement spread as Saudi Pro League clubs dreamt of big names from across the globe arriving to wear their colours.

Two months on, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Ruben Neves and Sadio Mane arrived at Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al Hilal and Al Nassr, respectively.

Even beyond that stellar quartet, Ettifaq fans in the east celebrated the arrival of Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and his predecessor Steven Gerrard as head coach. And, even in the second tier, Qadisiyah had cause for optimism as Robbie Fowler took over as their new boss.

But right at the heart of Riyadh’s busy Al Sahafa district, the wait continued.

Just as their home stadium has seemed days away from completion since June, and just as the trial runs of the Riyadh metro whizz along the King Fahd Road ahead of an unconfirmed opening day, the Al Shabab faithful continued to wait in vain for their share of the windfall.

Al Shabab have finished in the top four in each of the past three seasons. They are the fourth most successful side in the history of the league, with six titles to their name. Alongside Al Hilal and Al Ittihad, they are one of three teams to have won the league title three times in a row, doing so between 1990 and 1993, while their last league triumph came just over a decade ago when they won the 2011-12 title.

Saudi Arabia’s iconic 1994 World Cup goalscorer Saeed Al Owairan was a one-club man there, and the club produced 1990s heroes such as national team captain Fouad Anwar and striker Fahad Al Muhallal, amongst others.

With over a million followers on social media, they are the fifth most followed club in the country, with nearly twice as many as Ettifaq, who occupy the sixth spot.

But for all their success and popularity, Al Shabab have been left to fend for themselves. Their only arrival this summer has been Colombian midfielder Gustavo Cuellar, who was deemed surplus to requirements at Al Hilal.

Granted, Cuellar is one of the best players in his position in the league and is expected to form a formidable double pivot with club captain Ever Banega.

But given their rivals have been able to recruit midfielders like Fabinho, Henderson, Marcelo Brozovic, and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, Al Shabab fans can rightly feel a little hard done by.

Further complicating matters is the fact they have lost Gabonese forward Aaron Boupendza, who has moved to MLS side FC Cincinnati, and have not yet found a replacement, with the league season kicking-off on Friday.

Things are no better in the dugout. Following his impressive tenure last season, Spanish head coach Vicente Moreno was recruited by La Liga side Almeria, who are owned by the Chairman of the Saudi General Authority of Entertainment, Turki Al Alshaikh.

A protracted search saw the likes of Eintracht Frankfurt boss Oliver Glasner and Poland national team coach Fernando Santos reject approaches from the club before they finally settled on the underwhelming appointment of Marcel Keizer, formerly of Al Jazira in the Adnoc Pro League.

But for all their struggles, Al Shabab’s history shows they can work miracles. Having always lived in the shadow of their richer and more popular city rivals Al Hilal and Al Nassr, the club has always punched above their weight.

Nicknamed "The Youth", they've lived up their moniker by consistently promoting talent from within and recruiting intelligently, rather than lavishly, in the transfer market.

Their recent march to the semi-finals of the King Salman Cup is yet further proof they can deliver when least expected.

A pragmatic and disciplined approach from Keizer saw them advance from the group stage and then overcome UAE’s Al Wahda in the quarter-finals without scoring a single goal from open play.

A goalless draw against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Nassr got them under way and club captain Banega scored from the spot in back-to-back 1-0 wins over Egypt’s Zamalek and Tunisia’s US Monastir to put them top of the group. A fourth consecutive clean sheet in a 0-0 draw against Al Wahda saw them advance on penalties to a semi-final date with Al Hilal.

Whichever way the semi goes, Al Shabab supporters will believe that despite a lack of transfer activity, their history, character and manager’s pragmatism are convincing reasons they can still dream of a top-four finish, or maybe even more.

Updated: August 10, 2023, 11:39 AM