When the Saudi Pro League announced an increase to the foreign players quota per club from seven to eight for the 2023/24 season, questions were asked about how the decision would affect local players, who will be left to compete for just three spots in the starting XIs.
The decision was the latest step in a trend that has continued since 2017/18 when the first change to the long-standing rule that had clubs in the top division limited to registering four foreign players. That season, the quota was grown to six players, then up to seven in 2018-19 before the most recent increase to eight.
But this time, it was not just the number that has gone up. Since the decision by the Ministry of Sports to allow private ownership of clubs earlier this summer, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) moved to acquire a majority stake in the nation’s top four clubs, committing hundreds of millions of dollars to signing some of the best talents in world football.
The arrival of the likes of Karim Benzema, Neymar, Riyad Mahrez and many more to add to January’s arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo brought unprecedented global interest in the Saudi Pro League, but with it came a new challenge for Saudi players looking to establish themselves in their nation’s top tier football: they now have to earn their playing time by challenging the very best in the game.
A quick look at the scoring charts after five matches of this season reveals some familiar suspects. Ronaldo sits atop the rankings with six goals, his Al Nassr teammate Sadio Mane is one behind, level with last season’s top scorer Abderrazak Hamdallah, the Moroccan striker from Al Ittihad.
But two names stand out at the top end of the list: Salem Al Dawsari, arguably Saudi Arabia’s greatest footballer of the past decade, and 23-year-old Feras Al Buraikan, the player most likely to carry that accolade for the 2020s. Both have four goals to their names from five matches.
In the absence of Salman Al Faraj, Al Dawsari captained Al Hilal for the better part of 2023, leading by example and producing the same kind of big-game performances that saw him score for his country against Argentina in that famous 2-1 World Cup victory in Qatar.
The 32-year-old winger scored a brace against Al Raed and continued his scoring run in each of the last three games, sending a clear message to coach Jorge Jesus that he is not giving up his starting spot without a fight once Neymar recovers from injury. Following Al Dawsari’s displays, the Portuguese coach might have to tweak his formation to find away of fitting both his best local player and his best import in the same starting XI.
Al Buraikan, a left-footed striker who combines trickery and pace with an eye for goal, bagged 18 goals last season – more than any other Saudi player and just three goals short of top scorer Hamdallah. This season, he has continued his red-hot form, marking the opening game with a goal in Al Fateh’s 1-1 draw with Al Taawoun and scoring both goals in the 2-2 away draw with Damac.
His best performance, however, came on Saturday, in what proved his last game for Al Fateh. The striker was at the heart of everything his side did in attack, contributing a goal and an assist as Slaven Bilic’s men stunned their star-studded opponents, Al Ahli, running riot in a 5-1 victory.
Al Ahli quickly moved and within hours of the game, they had activated Al Buraikan’s $11 million release clause, acquiring his services to add to their talented attack that includes Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin.
Coach Matthias Jaissle will need to tinker with his formation, but the hope is that Al Buraikan, the main striker for Saudi Arabia’s national team, would find a starting place to continue his development alongside some of the best players in the game.
But for every Al Dawsari or Al Buraikan, there is an Abdullah Al Mayouf. The long-serving Al Hilal goalkeeper bid farewell to his club supporters this week after 11 years in the blue jersey, less than two weeks after the club signed Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou from Sevilla. Al Mayouf’s understudy and Saudi Arabia’s starting goalkeeper, Mohammed Al Owais, also looks on the brink of departing the club, rather than settle for a permanent place on the bench.
Goalkeepers have been the most affected by the influx of foreign players, with 17 of the 18 SPL clubs featuring a foreign goalkeeper. Al Nassr’s young keeper Nawaf Al Aqidi stands out as the exception to the rule; the 23-year-old got his big break last season after Colombian veteran David Ospina suffered a serious injury.
Al Aqidi’s impressive displays between the sticks convinced the club to utilise their foreign players quota in other positions and trust him to become the only local No 1 in the league this season.
Starting positions are becoming more and more precious for Saudi players to secure. But as Al Dawsari, Al Buraikan and Al Aqidi show, talent and hard work might be an old recipe for success, but it is as good as any for local players looking to make an impact in the 2023-24 Saudi Pro League.