Saudi Pro League 23/24 key information
The 2023/24 Saudi Pro League promises to be one of the most intriguing in the kingdom’s history, with Saudi Arabian clubs experiencing an unprecedented level of player recruitment.
Here’s all you need to know about the league, which now features the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Roberto Firmino and Steven Gerrard.
What is the Saudi Pro League?
Established in 1976, the Saudi Pro League represents the top tier of Saudi Arabian football. Roshn, a real estate division of the Public Investment Fund, has been the league’s title sponsor since last year.
Which teams have had the most success?
Al Hilal are record 18-time winners, while current champions Al Ittihad sit second alongside Al Nassr, with nine each. Al Shabab, another Riyadh club, have six titles, Al Ahli three, Al Ettifaq two and Al Fateh one.
Why will the 2023/24 season be so different?
The kingdom has invested significantly in its top league this summer. This has been marked by an unprecedented spend on player recruitment, with the likes of Benzema, Kante, Firmino, Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic following Ronaldo, who signed for Nassr last December, to Saudi. Last month, the kingdom announced the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project.
Launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the initiative aims to encourage private investment in the sports sector. Aligned with the kingdom’s Vision 2030, it will have a particular focus on football. One of the project’s primary objectives is to position the Saudi Pro League as one of the top 10 football leagues in the world.
As part of the privatisation objective, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) acquired a 75 per cent stake in Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli – the league’s four lead clubs. The remaining 25 per cent will be controlled by a non-profit organisation. The Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project will seek to increase the league’s annual revenue from 450 million Saudi riyals ($120 million) to more than 1.8 billion riyals. The kingdom has also targeted raising the Pro League’s market value from 3 billion riyals to more than 8 billion riyals by 2030.
When does the new season start and finish?
August 11 through until next May. The league will break from December 30-February 15 to accommodate the rescheduled 2023 Asian Cup, in Qatar.
How many teams will contest the 2023/24 season?
The league has been expanded from 16 teams last season to 18 now and comprises the top 14 clubs (two, Al Batin and Al Adalah, were relegated) from the 2022/23 campaign and four promoted from the second tier (Ahli, Al Hazem, Al Okhdood and Al Riyadh). The teams will play each other twice, in a home and away format, meaning each club have 34 league matches to contest.
When are matches played?
The majority of matches will fall between Thursday and Saturday. However, the opening matchday includes games on Sunday and Monday, while Matchday 4 takes place across Monday August 28 and Tuesday August 29. Also, Matchday 6 will run through until Sunday September 17.
How much are match tickets?
Prices can range from SAR10 to SAR100 ($2.70-$27) for general access and from SAR100 to SAR1,000 for VIP.
What are attendances like?
The Saudi Pro League is among the best attended in Asia, with official figures stating attendances had increased by 150 per cent in the past year alone. The total number cited was 2,249,161 – a record. Champions Ittihad averaged 40,400 for their home matches, which can climb to almost 60,000 for high-profile games. Capacities are said to range from 5,000 (Damac Club Stadium) to 62,500 (Hilal’s King Fadh International Stadium).
How many foreign players are each team allowed?
Last season, the league permitted teams to register eight foreign players, up by one from the previous campaign. That remains the same for this season.
Team-by-team guide for the Saudi Pro League 2023/24 season
(Note: All manager's are accurate as of August 1)
Stadium: Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Stadium
Manager: Czeslaw Michniewicz
Star player: Grzegorz Krychowiak
Abha, situated in the southwest of the kingdom, have spent the past five seasons in the top-flight but have never won a major trophy. Manager Michniewicz took charge of Poland at last year’s World Cup – they were managed last campaign by former UAE assistant coach Roel Coumans – while former Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Krychowiak has signed following a loan spell at Al Shabab last season.
Stadium: King Abdullah Sports City
Manager: Matthias Jaissle
Star player: Riyad Mahrez
Considered one the league’s “big four”, Ahli spent last season outside the top tier for the first time in their history, but bounced straight back by winning the first division title. Backed by PIF, the three-time Saudi champions have signed Manchester City's treble-winning winger Mahrez, Brazil international Roberto Firmino from Liverpool, Newcastle wideman Allan Saint-Maximin, and Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy from Chelsea. Jaissle arrives as manager after two years at RB Salzburg.
Stadium: Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium
Manager: Steven Gerrard
Star player: Robin Quaison
Ettifaq’s two league titles thus far came back in the 1980s, when they became the first team from Dammam on the east coast to secure the championship. After finishing seventh last season, they appointed Gerrard as manager, with a high-profile move for former Liverpool teammate Jordan Henderson close to completion.
Location: Al Hasa
Stadium: Prince Abdullah bin Jalawi Stadium
Manager: Slaven Bilic
Star player: Cristian Tello
Now under the guidance of new appointment Slaven Bilic, the former Croatia, West Ham United and West Bromwich Albion manager, Fateh are looking to improve on their impressive sixth-placed finish last season. Bilic knows the league a little having coached Ittihad for five months between 2018/19. Spain’s Tello, the former Barcelona, Porto and Real Betis winger, joined in January.
Location: Al Majmaah
Stadium: Al Majmaah Sports City
Manager: Vuk Rasovic
Star player: Vladimir Stojkovic
Fayha surprised many by winning the Saudi title in 2017, and again last year when they defeat powerhouses Al Hilal to land the kingdom’s premier cup competition, the King’s Cup. Well-travelled goalkeeper Stojkovic has represented the likes of Red Star Belgrade, Sporting, Wigan Athletic and Nottingham Forest, not to mention Serbia 84 times. Fayha finished 11th last season.
Location: Ar Rass
Stadium: Al Hazem Club Stadium
Manager: Felipe Gouveia
Star player: Aymen Dahmen
The second of the league’s newly promoted sides, Hazem were pipped to the first division crown last season by Ahli. Situated in Ar Rass in the heart of the kingdom about 350 kilometres from Riyadh, the club has never won a major trophy. Portuguese manager Gouveia has led a nomadic coaching career in his homeland, beginning at Boavista.
Stadium: King Fahd International Stadium
Manager: Jorge Jesus
Star player: Ruben Neves
One of Asia’s most successful clubs, Hilal have won a joint-record four Asian Champions League crowns (they were beaten finalists last season, while also finishing runners-up to Real Madrid in the Fifa Club World Cup), while they have an unprecedented 18 top-flight Saudi titles. Former Benfica manager Jesus was recently installed for this second stint with the capital club, while they have signed Neves from Wolves, Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio. A move for Fulham striker Aleksander Mitrovic looks likely to come off, as Hilal seek to better last season’s third-placed finish.
Stadium: King Abdullah Sports City
Manager: Nuno Espirito Santo
Star player: Karim Benzema
The champions, another of the “big four”, saw off the challenge of Ronaldo’s Nassr last season to capture a first top-flight title in nine years. Nuno Espirito-Santo guided the club to the trophy in his debut season, and first job since an ill-fated spell at Tottenham Hotspur. Founded in 1927, they are Saudi’s oldest club. Investing significantly this summer, Ittihad have Benzema, Kante, Portuguese winger Jota and have recently added Liverpool midfielder Fabinho. The squad already boasts former West Brom defender Ahmed Hegazi, and former UAE Pro League players in Igor Coronado and Romarinho.
Stadium: Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium (Dammam)
Manager: Pedro Emanuel
Star player: Fabio Martins
Managed by former Al Ain head coach Emanuel, Khaleej just about avoided relegation last season by finishing three points clear of the drop. Emanuel was already familiar with the league having managed Al Taawoun and heavyweights Al Nassr. Winger Fabio Martins represented UAE side Al Wahda before joining last December, while defender Lisandro Lopez had plied his trade at the likes of Benfica and Inter Milan.
Stadium: Mrsool Park
Manager: Luis Castro
Star player: Cristiano Ronaldo
The nine-time champions made worldwide headlines when they signed Ronaldo last December. The Portuguese forward could not prevent his new side from finishing runner-up to Ittihad, though, despite his 14 goals in 16 matches. Helped by the PIF investment, Nassr have appointed as manager Castro, while also adding Croatian international midfielder Marcelo Brozovic from Inter Milan and Lens captain Seko Fofana. Last champions in 2019, Nassr are confident of signing Sadio Mane from Bayern Munich. Other recognisable names in the squad include former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina and ex-Benfica forward Anderson Talisca.
Stadium: Prince Hathloul bin Abdulaziz Sports City Stadium
Manager: Jorge Mendonca
Star player: Solomon Kvirkvelia
Finishing third in the first division last season, level on points with second-placed Hazem, Okhdood will compete in the top tier for the first time in their history. Unsurprisingly, they have never won a major trophy. Based right on the southern border, Okhdood are managed by Mendonca, perhaps known for his short stint as Reading assistant coach from 2018. Georgia international defender Kvirkvelia recently joined the club.
Stadium: King Abdullah Sport City Stadium
Manager: Igor Jovicevic
Star player: Amir Sayoud
Fresh off last season’s 10th-placed finish, Raed are considered one of the division’s more modest clubs. Yet to taste major success in terms of silverware, they are managed by former Shakhtar Donetsk head coach Jovicevic. Algerian attacking midfielder Sayoud is tasked with providing much of the team’s creative thrust, while Brazilian defender Pablo Santos has played for the likes of Braga and Ruben Kazan.
Stadium: Prince Turki bin Abdulaziz Stadium
Manager: Yannick Ferrera
Star player: Knowledge Musona
The final of the promoted teams following last season’s fourth-placed finish in the first division, Riyadh are contesting the Saudi top-flight for the first time in almost two decades. To herald their return to the big time, the club appointed as manager Ferrara, the experienced Belgian who previously coached Fateh between 2019 and 2022. Riyadh have actually finished runner-up in the top-fight, way back in 1994. Zimbabwe international forward Musona has recently joined, as has former Uruguay national team goalkeeper Martin Campana.
Stadium: Prince Faisal bin Fahd Stadium
Star player: Ever Banega
The six-time Saudi champions may feel slightly aggrieved that they don’t quite have the PIF backing of the country’s lead quartet, but they are expected to augment their squad before the big kick off. Among positions that need filling is the manager, after Vicente Moreno left in June after one campaign in charge. Last season, he guided Shabab to fourth. Former Valencia and Argentina midfielder Banega pulls the team’s strings, with Colombia international Gustavo Cuellar joining him in midfield following his recent move from Hilal. Kim Seung-gyu, South Korea’s No 1 at last year’s World Cup, is another key contributor to the side.
Stadium: King Abdullah Sport City Stadium
Manager: Pericles Chamusca
Star player: Alvaro Medran
Few managers in the Saudi top-flight have as many clubs on their CV as Chamusca: Taawoun represent his 30th managerial job. Last season, the Buraidah side finished a very respectable fifth, only one point off Shabab and four back of Hilal. Taawoun’s one major trophy remains the 2019 King’s Cup – they defeated Ittihad in the final – while Spanish midfielder Medran counts Real Madrid among his former clubs.
Stadium: Prince Abdulaziz bin Musaed Stadium
Manager: Kresimir Rezic
Star player: Guy Mbenza
Situated in Hail to the north of the kingdom, Tai finished last season at the top of the second half of the table, in ninth. They recently installed as manager Rezic, the Croat who spent the past couple of campaigns in charge of Damac. Yet to win a major trophy, Tai are spearheaded by Congolese forward Mbenza, who scored 10 goals in the league last time out. Meanwhile, Guinea-Bissau midfielder Alfa Semedo has previously spent time on loan with Nottingham Forest and Reading.
Stadium: King Abdulaziz Stadium
Manager: Giorgos Donis
Star name: Anselmo
Having just about avoided relegation last season – they finished 13th, four points off the drop – Wehda moved quickly to replace Jose Luis Serra with Donis. The former Greece international, who managed Hilal and also in the UAE with Sharjah, will hope his second stint lasts longer than his first: he left the club in May 2021 after two months in charge. Wehda are two-time King’s Cup winners, albeit the last of which arrived in 1966, but boast players with World Cup experience in Costa Rica defender Oscar Duarte and Moroccan duo Faycal Fajr and Munir Mohamedi. Brazilian defensive midfielder Anselmo has long been a vital cog in the side.
Location: Khamis Mushait
Stadium: Damac Club Stadium
Manager: Cosmin Contra
Star name: Farouk Chafai
Eighth in the standings last season, Damac are tucked away down in the southwest close to Abha. Yet to land any major silverware, the club played in the second tier as recently as 2019, but are now under the guidance of Contra. The wily Romanian, who as a player represented AC Milan, Atletico Madrid and West Brom, has played for and managed his country, with his coaching career including Getafe, Dinamo Bucharest and Ittihad. Chafai, a former Algeria international, has been a mainstay of the defence since joining three years ago.
Player profiles for Saudi Pro League 2023/24
The Portuguese superstar paved the way for the current influx of players this summer when he signed for Al Nassr last December after leaving Manchester United. The five-time Ballon d'Or scored an impressive 14 goals in 16 games for Nassr last term but could not guide the Riyadh club to the title, losing out to Al Ittihad. Now 38, Ronaldo is one the greatest players of all time, having won five Uefa Champions Leagues and league titles in England, Spain and Italy. He is both international football's record caps holder (200) and scorer (123).
The current Ballon d’Or winner joined champions Al Ittihad in June after 14 trophy-laden years at Real Madrid. Aged 35, the Frenchman left as the Spanish club’s second all-time leading goalscorer, with 353 goals. In his time at the Bernabeu, Benzema helped Madrid to five Uefa Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles, along with five Club World Cups and three Copa del Reys.
A difficult single season at Bayern Munich should not disguise the size of the signing for Al Nassr. Mane, 31, is regarded as one of football's premier forwards, that stature secured following six excellent years at Liverpool in which he won practically every major honour, including the Premier League and Champions League. Struck 120 times in 269 appearances, and still managed 12 goals in 38 matches for Bayern. A 2021 Africa Cup of Nations winner with Senegal, and two-time African footballer of the year.
The Algerian ended his five-year stay at Manchester City as a treble winner having helped Pep Guardiola's side sweep the board in 2022/23, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League. In all, he made 236 City appearances after joining from Leicester City in 2018, scoring 78 goals. Mahrez won 11 trophies during his time at the Etihad Stadium. He has signed a contract at Al Ahli through to 2027.
The Brazil international, 31, signed for newly promoted Al Ahli on a free transfer after his contract with Liverpool had expired. During eight memorable years at Anfield, Firmino became a firm fan favourite, capturing a Premier League title, FA Cup, League Cup, Fifa Club World Cup and the 2019 Champions League. Left having scored 111 goals in 362 appearances, while he has 55 caps for Brazil, scoring 17 times.
A 2018 World Cup winner with France, the 32-year-old midfielder moved to Ittihad following a hugely successful time in England with Leicester City and Chelsea. A two-time Premier League champion, Kante won basically every major trophy during his seven-year stay at Chelsea, including the Champions League. Considered one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation.
Considered one of the premier centre-backs in Europe across more than 300 appearances at Italian side Napoli, the 32-year-old Senegal captain joined Al Hilal after a disappointing debut season at Chelsea. However, at Napoli Koulibaly was a real hit, named four times in the Serie A team of the year and voted as the best defender in Italy in 2019. Led his national team last year to Africa Cup of Nations success.
The midfielder posted an emotional farewell video to Liverpool fans after 12 trophy-laden years at Anfield to link up with his former Anfield teammate Steven Gerrard at Al Ettifaq. The England international, 33, succeeded Gerrard as Liverpool captain, skippering them to the Premier League title in 2020 – the Merseyside club's first English top-flight title in 30 years – as well as the Uefa Champions League crown in 2019. Henderson joins the Damman side on a three-year deal for a transfer fee of around £12 million.
A key contributor in Newcastle United’s recent rapid improvement, the French winger makes up a sumptuous Al Ahli attack alongside Firmino and Mahrez. Saint-Maximin, 26, marries blistering pace with dazzling trickery, scoring 12 times in the Premier League in 111 appearances following his transfer from Nice. Such an exciting player to watch, however, injury restricted him to only 12 league starts last season, while he can often struggle for consistency.
Al Ittihad’s impressive spend sustained with the recruitment of the accomplished Liverpool midfielder. The Brazil international, 29, earned a reputation as one of the world’s best defensive midfielders during five, trophy-laden years at Anfield, instrumental in particular in Liverpool winning the Premier League and Champions League. A regular for his country, Fabinho scored 11 goals and created 10 assists in 219 matches for the English club.
The Portuguese winger, 24, was perhaps a surprise addition given his age and profile, but the lure of the Saudi champions proved too great. Jota joined the Jeddah club after two extremely successful years at Celtic in which he scored 28 goals and registered 26 assists in 83 matches having signed initially on loan from Benfica. A league winner in his homeland, he won the double in first campaign in Glasgow and then the treble last season.
The Portugal international, 26, became Al Hilal’s record signing when he swapped Wolves for the Riyadh club for a reported £47 million ($60m). Neves had spent six years at the English club, spearheading their promotion to the Premier League and then successive top-seven finishes. In all, he scored 26 goals in 253 appearances. Capped 40 times by his country, he was part of the team’s squad at the 2022 World Cup.
The Croatian midfielder, 30, brings a ton of experience to Al Nassr following his transfer from Champions League runners-up Inter Milan. Aged 30, Brozovic spent eight years at the San Siro, winning the 2020/21 Scudetto and two Italian Cups. A key part of an overperforming Croatia side who reached the final of the 2018 World Cup and then took bronze in Qatar last December, he has 87 caps for his country.
Another Africa Cup of Nations winner with Senegal, the goalkeeper followed compatriot Koulibaly to Saudi, albeit for Jeddah side Al Ahli. Like the defender, Mendy made the move from Chelsea, although he had actually fallen out of favour last season. Still, the 31-year-old enjoyed success in his three years at Stamford Bridge – he has a Champions League trophy and a Fifa Club World Cup to show for it.
At 28 and linked continuously to a number of leading European clubs, the Serbia international represents another sizeable coup for the Saudi Pro League. Milinkovic-Savic spent eight years at Lazio, scoring 69 goals in 341 appearances and lifting the 2019 Italian Cup and two Italian Super Cups. As captain last season, the midfielder was integral to the team’s second-placed finish in Serie A. He joins Al Hilal on a three-year deal, with the transfer fee rumoured to be $44 million.
A former teammate of Cristiano Ronaldo’s at Manchester United, the Brazil full-back will renew that relationship with the Portuguese star at Al Nassr. Telles, 30, became the latest recruit at last season’s runners-up and arrives after helping Sevilla to the Europa League crown in May – while on loan. In signing for Nassr, he ends a three-year stay at United, in which he made 50 appearances. Has 12 caps for Brazil, too.
Intent on bolstering the heart of their midfield, Al Ahli signed the Ivory Coast star from Barcelona for a reported $13.7 million. Kessie, 26, spent only one season at Camp Nou following a largely underwhelming move from AC Milan last year. Still, he is regarded as a stellar central midfielder - even if he was used primarily as a substitute in Spain - who was instrumental in Milan’s 2021/22 Serie A title success. Has 63 caps for his country.
Salem Al Dawsari
Long viewed the league’s principal local talent, the Al Hilal winger has a knack for match-defining moments. Most recently, Al Dawsari struck the winner in Saudi Arabia’s shock victory against Argentina at the 2022 World Cup. Practically a one-club man – he had a brief loan at Spain's Villarreal – the 31-year-old has won the Saudi league for times, three King’s Cups and two Asian Champions Leagues. However, he was sent off in two Champions League final defeats, including last May.
Salman Al Faraj
The hugely experienced midfielder, 33, captains both Al Hilal and Saudi Arabia, conveying his stature within the domestic game in particular. Al Faraj, who like Al Dawsari represents his boyhood club, has for some time constituted the heartbeat of club and country, a seven-time Saudi champion who latterly guided Hilal to Champions League glory in 2019 and 2021. However, he was beset by injuries last season, which curtailed his 2022 World Cup.
Another Al Hilal star, the energetic midfielder shone at the World Cup, even if Saudi Arabia did not make it out of the group stage. Kanno, 28, has been part of a dominant Al Hilal side since his first-team debut in 2017 and has the collection of trophies to prove it. Was apparently one of the lead names attracting European attention via his performances in Qatar. With Neves and Milinkovic-Savic now club teammates, interesting to see where Kanno fits in.
The Brazilian forward, 29, was Al Nassr’s standout star until Ronaldo’s arrival, but was not distracted too severely last season as he struck 20 times – second in the final scoring charts – to fire the club’s runner-up finish. Also represented Benfica and Besiktas, winning league titles at both, Talisca has been temperamental and at times truculent since joining Nassr in 2021. No doubting his talent, though.
For sure a lead light in Saudi, the Al Shabab midfielder has become the fulcrum of the side since making the switch from Spain’s Sevilla in 2020. Now 35, Banega previously plied his trade for Boca Juniors in his homeland, Valencia and Inter Milan. Captained Al Shabab to a fourth-placed finish last season, while he counts among his major trophies the Copa Libertadores, the Copa del Rey and three Europa Leagues.
The Brazilian forward, 32, has excelled at Al Ittihad following his 2018 transfer from UAE’s Al Jazira – off the back of a strong Fifa Club World Cup in which he scored in the semi-final defeat to Real Madrid. Having already won the trophy with Corinthians, Romarinho was then crucial to Ittihad’s league success last season with 13 goals, including the winner in the decisive top-of-the-table clash with Al Nassr.
Crucial to Al Ittihad’s recent upturn in fortunes, the Egypt international was also instrumental in last season’s title win, captaining the team to a first top-flight trophy in nine years. Hegazy, 32, has played for the likes of Fiorentina, Al Ahly and West Bromwich Albion, and boasts 83 appearances for his country. Was runner-up at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, when he made team of the tournament.
The prolific Al Ittihad striker fired an unrivalled 21 goals last season to power his team to the title. Not only did it secure Hamdallah a second Saudi top-flight crown – his first came in 2019 with Al Nassr – but it sealed a third Golden Boot. The Moroccan international, 32, struck a league record 34 times in that 2018/19 season and ended 2019 as the world’s top goalscorer for the calendar year. Has 110 goals in 113 Saudi Pro League appearances, while he was part of the Morocco squad at the 2022 World Cup.
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Wael Jabir reports from Saudi Arabia:
All eyes will be on the big names as the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League kicks-off on Friday. Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin will be some of the names featuring in the opening match between Al Ahli and Al Hazem, but beyond the star power, the competition offers some interesting storylines to follow over the course of the coming season. Here we look at five of these compelling subplots.
One more league title for Ronaldo?
Despite being one of the most decorated players in the history of the game, Cristiano Ronaldo has not won a league title in three years, a drought the Portuguese has only experienced once in his career, between 2013 and 2016, while at Real Madrid – but it was a period in which he won two Champions Leagues.
Ronaldo’s last league success dates back to his second season at Juventus in 2019-20. Since then, he’s had to watch Inter Milan, Manchester City and most recently Al Ittihad beat his teams to the title. The five-time Ballon d'Or winner had a productive half-season in Riyadh last term, bagging 14 goals, and his team has since bolstered their squad with the likes of Sadio Mane, Marcelo Brozovic, Seko Fofana and Alex Telles. Is it time for one last league title for one of the greatest players of all time?
The race for the golden boot
Al Ittihad striker Abderrazak Hamdallah has been the league's top scorer three times in the last five seasons, including twice in Al Nassr colours. The other two winners of the award in that period, Odion Ighalo and Bafetimbi Gomis, have since left the league, while Hamdallah is now partnering Karim Benzema up front.
With Ronaldo leading the line for Al Nassr and the arrival of the likes of Firmino, Benzema, Moussa Dembele and others, the 2023-24 season promises a thrilling race on the scoring front. Don’t rule out league veterans like Al Taawoun’s Leandre Tawamba and Al Raed’s Mohammed Fouzair, or rising Saudi stars such as Al Fateh’s Firas Al Buraikan, who ended last season with an impressive tally of 18 goals, just three behind Hamdallah's tally.
Can Gerrard inspire Al Ettifaq to unlikely glory?
Al Ettifaq might not be one of the established big five in the country – this honour is reserved for Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Shabab – but Steven Gerrard’s new side have done impressive business, attracting Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, former Celtic and Lyon striker Dembele and Scottish defender Jack Hendry.
The side from Dammam were once a force to reckon with in the league, becoming Saudi Arabia’s first ‘Invincibles’ when they won the league in 1982-83 without a single defeat, then adding their second title four years later. Since then, the club has gone through some difficult times and even experienced a spell in the second tier. In recent years, Al Ettifaq have seen a resurgence and were able to break into the top four as recently as 2017-18. If Gerrard can lead them to title glory against the odds, his status in the East of Saudi Arabia might just rival that on Merseyside.
The return of Al Riyadh
For the first time in over two decades, the capital Riyadh will be represented by four clubs in the Saudi Pro League. The established trio of Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Shabab have often competed at the top end of the table, but they are joined this season by a fourth outfit that have suffered a long absence in the lower tiers of Saudi football.
Al Riyadh FC were relegated from the top division in 2004-05 and have since dropped to the third division before making their way back up to the top. The team in black and red do, however, have a proud tradition in the competition. In the 1990s they provided the national team with many players and finished runners-up in 1993-94 and in third place the following season.
Following their promotion, Al Riyadh recruited some of the most experienced names in the league, including the likes of Zimbabwe captain Knowledge Musona and Uruguay international goalkeeper Martin Campana. Will that be enough to see them re-establish themselves among the elite beyond next season?
Al Okhdood, the ultimate outsiders
For all the excitement and debate about the top teams, one team in the newly-expanded competition stands out as a complete unknown quantity even for the most seasoned followers of Saudi football.
Al Okhdood (Arabic for ‘The Ditch’) are not only geographically the remotest of all 18 teams, but they are also the only ones to have never competed in the top division before this season. The club from the southernmost city of Najran, on the border with Yemen, have made some intriguing signings such as former Barcelona starlet Alex Collado and Romanian playmaker Florin Tanase from UAE’s Al Jazira. Their rise from obscurity could provide the basis for the most romantic underdog story in the Saudi Pro League this season.