So, after a summer spent seemingly at the epicentre of the football world, beginning with Benzema and maintained with imaginings of Messi and Mbappe, the actual football.
As it turned out, and just as the investors envisaged, it was worth the wait. The New Era Saudi Pro League whirred into action on a still-stifling Friday night in Jeddah, when an Al Ahli side captained by Roberto Firmino and boasting another batch of similarly star-studded arrivals kicked off the 2023/24 season.
Firmino, with his collection of major trophies captured with peak-Klopp Liverpool, captained Al Ahli for their return to the top-flight following a solitary campaign outside it, Al Hazem playing the adversary in enemy territory.
They too are newly promoted, but have not been bankrolled this summer by the country’s Public Investment Fund.
It certainly told, initially at least. On the Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium pitch, Riyad Mahrez was stationed to Firmino’s right, fresh from his move last month from Manchester City. To the Brazilian’s left, Allan Saint-Maximin, the invigorating-if-not-inconsistent former Newcastle United winger.
All three featured heavily for three of the top teams in last season’s Premier League. Mahrez mined a treble alongside his City teammates.
Behind the triumvirate, Franck Kessie marshalled midfield like he was back with AC Milan’s Serie-A conquering side from two years back. On the early evidence, a frustrating 12 months at Barcelona will quickly be consigned to memory.
Further back, Roger Ibanez slotted into the centre of Ahli’s defence despite confirmation of his transfer from Roma arriving only on Wednesday. It probably helped having Edouard Mendy, goalkeeper of the year in 2021 for both Uefa and Fifa, just over his shoulder. Such is life in Saudi football these days.
If the past couple months have felt like a whirlwind, or an admittedly deep-welled desert mirage, then this was it in reality, the kingdom’s vision for football in full technicolour.
There were pyrotechnics, flares, and flag waving long before Firmino struck the opener on six minutes and then doubled Ahli’s advantage not long after. The first was a deftly flicked header, the second a comfortable, close-range finish. Mahrez, recruited reportedly for $35 million, assisted the second.
Meanwhile, Saint-Maximin was clearly enjoying himself. He feinted, rolled the ball under his studs, dropped a shoulder, and slinked past a succession of opponents, fan-favourite status certified already.
It was hard not to, in that dizzying opening period, feel for Hazem. Not when faced with Firmino and the like. To put into perspective, Hazem’s most notable name is Aymen Dahmen, Tunisia’s goalkeeper from the Qatar World Cup.
Or, for those familiar with UAE football, midfielder Toze, the Portuguese making his competitive bow following the conclusion of a four-year stint at Dubai’s Al Nasr. Not through much fault of his own, he barely got a kick in the first half.
Based in Ar Rass, Hazem had travelled 1,000-odd kilometres for this.
It did, though, get better. Five minutes into the second half, Mendy passed straight to opposition striker Vina, allowing the Brazilian to promptly lob back the ball into the Ahli net and thus half the deficit. Even given Mendy’s outrageous mistake, it was beautifully executed.
For the first time in the match, Ahli’s support dampened. Which is saying something; some had apparently been there from 4pm, five hours before kick-off.
The Ahli faithful were soon back on their feet, but Firmino’s slick finish was ruled out for offside. Later, Saint-Maximin screwed wide his shot from the left. Mahrez then bundled a long-range drive straight at Dahmen. It proved his final contribution, as manager Matthias Jaissle, another summer signing, called for replacements.
Yet, on 72 minutes, Ahli made safe the result. Saint-Maximin crossed for Firmino, who prodded home after Dahmen repelled his header. Firmino had his hat-trick, Ahli their reprieve.
At the other end, Mendy still had to deny Hazem a way back into the contest, saving well low to his right with an outstretched leg. It marked the last meaningful bit of action, Ahli getting the job done, the three-time champions welcomed back into the big time with a win.
The 2023/24 Saudi Pro League, fuelled by its super-charged summer spend, was officially up and running.