Future looking brighter for Al Shabab in Saudi Pro League after turbulent summer

Riyadh-based team showing signs of improvement following underwhelming transfer window and dire start to season

Al Shabab's Ever Banega, left, under pressure from Ruben Neves of Al Hilal during the Saudi Pro League match at Prince Faisal Bin Fahad on September 29, 2023. Getty
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Not since the partial acquisition of Saudi Arabia’s top four clubs by the Public Investment Fund in June has there been as much excitement about the transformation one club in the Saudi Pro League is undergoing as is the case around Al Shabab at the moment.

Fans of the Riyadh-based team, the third most successful in the Saudi Pro League, have been vocal about their frustration at the club being left out of the summer’s influx of new wealth.

Following a poor transfer window and their worst start to an SPL season in recent history, things reached a tipping point with the supporters gathering outside the club in August calling for the resignation of the club president and its board of directors.

Three days later, four members of Al Shabab’s seven-man board handed in their resignations, prompting the Ministry of Sport to call for fresh elections, and, by the end of September, Mohammed Al Manjam had been elected as new club president, promising an era of change.

One challenge facing Al Manjam’s plans for immediate transformation was the fact the transfer window had closed a couple of weeks before his election, meaning that any additions to the squad would have to wait until January.

Beyond that, there were plenty of other areas to work on, and the new board got down to business with the sense of urgency needed to rescue a traditional powerhouse teetering on the brink of relegation.

An abysmal start to the season that saw Al Shabab go into match week 6 without a single win to their name and with just two points collected cost Dutch manager Marcel Keizer his position.

Youth-team coach Juan Brown took over as interim manager, so the first task on the in-tray of Al Manjam’s administration was to find a permanent replacement. Former Liverpool player Igor Biscan was the man selected for the hot seat, the 45-year-old having just won the Croatian League with Dinamo Zagreb.

The list of tasks also included the swift completion of the move to their new stadium that had been delayed multiple times despite promises the club would start the current season playing in their own ground.

The frustration of Al Shabab fans has also manifested itself in shrinking attendances. Official figures revealed by the SPL after match week 8 show Al Shabab with the lowest total crowds out of the 18 clubs in the league, and by some margin too.

In four home games, just under 7,000 fans showed up for Al Shabab’s games. By contrast, that number stood at 103,000 fans for their city rivals Al Hilal and 65,000 for Ronaldo’s Al Nassr. The only other team to have registered less than 10,000 fans were provincial side Abha and even they had nearly three thousand more supporters than Al Shabab.

To address this issue, Al Shabab ran a two-week long campaign, galvanising fans to rally around their club in the opening match of the new stadium. Legends of the club such as Saeed Al Owairan and Abdulrahman Al Rumi took part and a much-publicised ‘most expensive ticket in history’ was offered for SAR 1 million ($270,000).

On the eve of the game against Al Tai, it was announced that the VVIP ticket had been purchased by Prince Abdulrahman bin Turki Al Saud, one of the club’s long-term backers.

To mark the new dawn, Al Shabab were to don their new striped black and white kit for the first time, and the campaign proved a huge success, with the Friday fixture drawing 12,000 fans, nearly twice as many fans as the previous four home games combined.

Senegalese forward Habib Diallo, who had joined from French side Strasbourg in the summer, had been the focus of much of the fans ire over the early week, with many considering him an underwhelming acquisition at the time their league rivals had landed the likes of Karim Benzema, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Roberto Firmino and Moussa Dembele.

On Friday, it was Diallo who scored the first goal at the new stadium, finally ending a nine-match goal drought and marking the start of the new era.

A solid 2-0 win over Al Tai meant for only the second time this season, Al Shabab are unbeaten two matches in a row and move into the top half of the table.

It is still a long way from where the side traditionally accustomed to competing for trophies and rarely finishing outside the top five want to be. But if the buzzing atmosphere on Friday is any indication, then the future could be bright for the boys in black and white.

Updated: October 24, 2023, 4:12 PM