Michael Emenalo, director of football at the Saudi Pro League, says the overall ambition of the competition is to attract all the world’s top players and become a league for exceptional players only within a “few short years”.
The revamped Saudi top-flight, currently one of the major storylines in football, kicked off on Friday following a summer of unprecedented investment, with the likes of Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, N’Golo Kante and Jordan Henderson now playing in the kingdom.
The league has publicly stated its aim to eventually rank as one of the world’s top-10 domestic football competitions.
Speaking on the opening weekend of the 2023/24 season, Emenalo said: “I would love to have Kylian Mbappe here. I would love to have Harry Kane here. The league would like to have all the top players.
“And I think it will be at the heart of this whole particular strategy: it is that, in a couple of years, in a few short years, this will become a league for exceptional players only.
“It will become a league only for those who at the top of their game because we have only 18 clubs and the space for just eight international players [at each club].
“And, yes, we have resources and we're going to use those resources to make sure, once we build up infrastructure, that the only players here are the ones at the top of their game.”
Emenalo, technical director with Premier League side Chelsea from 2011-2017, was appointed last month to head the Saudi Pro League’s new Player Acquisition Centre of Excellence, which provides a centralised approach to transfers. His role involves assisting with “squad mapping”, where Emenalo works on international transfers with all 18 top-tier clubs.
The league says Pace will help offer all clubs the “best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, yet sustainable future”, including implementing best practices in relation to scouting and recruitment.
“We want a disciplined structure that allows the clubs to manage their affairs efficiently,” Emenalo said. “Whether it’s finance or recruitment, or coaching, we want them to be as efficient as possible.
“The idea again is for every club to earn what they get – now and in the future. That’s the starting point. As time goes on, we will look at it to see if it works.
“The goal is to become sustainable. Once that is figured out, we will move in a different direction.”
Emenalo said the new structure also placed emphasis on developing Saudi footballers and, in collaboration with the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and the league’s clubs, to open a more obvious pathway for young local players.
On Friday, the Saudi Pro League season opener between Al Ahli and Al Hazem in Jeddah featured high-profile foreigner players in Mahrez, Firmino, Allan Saint-Maximin, Franck Kessie, Edouard Mendy and Roger Ibanez. All six joined Ahli, one of four clubs majority-owned by the country’s Public Investment Fund, this window.
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A former Nigeria international, Emenalo said he did not believe the Saudi Pro League would require as long as the “trailblazing” Premier League to realise its overarching objective.
“I don't think is going to take the same amount of time that it took the Premier League to get there for us to establish ourselves,” he said. “As you can see from the [opening] game, the line-up that Al Ahli have, most Premier League clubs would be happy to have.
“In that sense I believe we are on the right path and that it will not take us as long to get to where the ambition has always been, which is to be one of the best in the world.”
Earlier this month, the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, said he was not “too concerned” about the level of the kingdom’s recent spending, while Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has called for the Saudi Pro League transfer window, which extends beyond its European counterparts, to September 7, to fall in line with those competitions.
Meanwhile, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said last month that Saudi Arabia had “changed the market” and that clubs “need to be aware of what is happening” regarding the possibility of losing players to the kingdom.
Asked whether the Premier League and its European peers feared the enhanced Saudi investment, Emenalo stressed the Saudi Pro League was not attempting to undermine the established order as LIV Golf had done with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.
“The European leagues, especially the Premier League, are very strong, [are] entrenched; they have no reason to be scared,” Emenalo said. “I do feel they consider our presence to be disruptive. I have said we’re disruptive to enhance the understanding.
“There is panic in some areas, but this is from a misunderstanding of what we stand for, what we are trying to do. [Once they understand] then they will start panicking less and working with us.
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“I was told what Mr Klopp said and what Guardiola said. One is a coach I absolutely admire and the other is a good friend of mine, in Pep.
“I understand their concerns. Our goal is to work together with all the leagues and be a brotherhood in the football industry. We want to establish our place in the industry in a way that helps everyone.”
Emenalo said he had received countless messages from players from outside Saudi after Ahli’s 3-1 victory against Hazem – Firmino, the former Liverpool forward, scored a hat-trick – who, having watched the match, said their perception of the league had changed.
“Surprisingly, the biggest concern is narrative, and we have to demolish some of these very outrageous narratives out there that there is something wrong with the Saudi League or with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Emenalo said.
“That’s what they worry about, but I cannot tell you how many calls or messages I got last night from players who had stayed up to watch this game because they wanted to see and, after they saw it, thought: ‘You know what, it’s not what I expected. I would love to be part of it.’”
Saudi’s traditional four lead clubs – Ahli, champions Al Ittihad, record league winners Al Hilal, and Al Nassr – are now majority-owned by PIF. Thus, they have been by some way the biggest recruiters in the league this summer.
On whether he was wary of the league effectively becoming a two-tier competition separated by that financial divide, Emenalo said: “Great question, but there's no problem here. Because this is something that we've witnessed.
“The clubs in England or Spain or Italy were not owned by a big organisation called PIF. But they were big clubs, and they had significantly greater economic power than the other clubs.
“I don't think it's a problem; I think it is a challenge for those clubs. And as you saw yesterday, on the pitch, Al Hazem accepted that challenge and, realised that, ‘We can't sit here and cry about what we're getting; we have to show that we're in this league, and we're happy to be in this league and compete’.
“What we hope to have is what's happened in the Premier League: is that over time, there is a competitive balance that comes in from people in these clubs working really well, with the support of the league to improve their situation financially, structurally, and in terms of their technical ability to recruit and prepare well for games.”
Emenalo added: “We have strategy about improving the quality of the league, and the quality of every team. And we believe that if we do that, that will improve the competitive balance of the league. There’s no strategy to help a struggling team acquire a big name or a great team to lose a big name.
“But we’re looking strategically to improve all the teams giving them what they need within their budget, because you have to earn those players.
“So, a club like Al Hilal, [who] over a number of years have been a top club in this league, we can’t suddenly forget that. The same thing with all the other big clubs; they have earned the right to be at the top of the tree.”
Emenalo, who said some of the figures reported regarding transfer fees and player contracts have been inflated, confirmed the league had not completed its incomings this window.
On Sunday, it was reported Hilal were close to finalising a hugely lucrative deal for Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.
“There's always more business to be done,” Emenalo said. “I don't know what the calibre of that business will be. We're always open for some surprises, something big to happen.
“But now the clubs are working frantically to improve their squad, and they will continue to do that until the end of the transfer window. It’s no different from what goes on in [other prominent leagues].
“There's some transfers and some deals that are in the pipeline already, for the different clubs.”