“I cannot tell you how many calls or messages I got last night,” Saudi Pro League Director of Football Michael Emenalo told the press after the opening match of the season between Al Ahli and Al Hazem.
“Players stayed up to watch this game because they wanted to see and after they saw it, thinking, ‘You know what, it’s not what I expected, and I would love to be part of it'."
From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and more, the names arrivng to the Saudi Pro League are known to all, but it was the atmosphere at games, the passion of the fans and the experience of playing in the country that made the difference for those players who had their agents pick up the phone and reach out to Emenalo.
Last Friday, Al Ahli had the backing of 24,000 fans in the stands of Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium in Jeddah on their return to the top-flight after a season in the First Division League.
Wearing the captain’s armband, Roberto Firmino took in the atmosphere, he was seen nodding his head in approval. For a man who has spent the previous few seasons playing in front of the famed Anfield crowd and celebrating in front of the Kop, to be impressed by Al Ahli fans was no mean feat.
Allan Saint-Maximin shared multiple videos of his new club’s fans, particularly being impressed by their latest chant "Shkon Antoma", inspired by the Algerian dialect for “Who are you?” in honour of Mahrez and featuring the former Newcastle United man’s last name.
With all three of the other big four, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Nassr, playing their opening games on the road, there was not much more to see in terms of big-game atmosphere, but the King Salman Cup final between Al Hilal and Al Nassr in Abha demonstrated more of the passion as fans of the two Riyadh clubs turned out in numbers despite the game being played some 1,000 kilometres from the capital.
In a season where Lionel Messi’s move to the MLS and the influx of stars to the Kingdom sparked the debate about which of the two leagues can be the new frontier of world football, quality on the pitch can only go so far to lure in the neutrals; it is the atmosphere created by fans, especially those of the big clubs, week-in and week-out that will make the difference.
Throughout the summer, international media indulged in comparisons with earlier projects by China and Qatar to build the next top league by attracting star names from Europe, declaring the Saudi Pro League experiment just another misadventure.
What most had not considered was the fact that unlike China where basketball, badminton and table tennis reign supreme, football is the undisputed champion of not just sports, but all forms of entertainment in Saudi Arabia.
And unlike Qatar, with a native population of just over 300,000 and a total of under three million residents; Saudi Arabia has a fairly large population of more than 32 million, with 63 per cent of Saudis under the age of 30, meaning the appetite and sheer market size give the SPL a significant advantage over those unsuccessful projects.
However, in order for this numerical advantage to manifest into sustained success for the league, those fans need to step up their game in the same way the quality on the pitch is growing.
The acquisition of the top four clubs by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, has elevated the level of competition between them in the market to the next level, resulting in fans demanding more despite the world-class names already recruited.
When Al Hilal signed Ruben Neves and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, their fans complained they do not have a ‘Class A’ player a la Ronaldo and Benzema. When Neymar arrived to don the club’s No 10 shirt, Al Ittihad fans were fuming that their club still have four of the same foreign players they had last season, even though Abderrazak Hamdallah was last season’s top scorer and it was him alongside another title winner from last season, Igor Coronado, who scored all three goals in their opening match. The club is in no way short of big-name signings, having brought in N’Golo Kante, Fabinho and Jota alongside Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner.
In all of the above cases, fans threatened to boycott their club’s games and new player unveilings, as is the right for any supporter.
But in its objective of becoming a top-10 league in the world, the presence of fans in large numbers, creating an atmosphere in every game and showing the world the best of Saudi fan culture, is what will eventually earn clubs a place among the world’s best, rather than short-term focus on protesting the subjective quality of their players, whose presence in the Saudi Pro League was unimaginable as recently as last season.