A strong league likes its champions to be stars in all terrains. Think only of how the English Premier League enjoyed the reflected glory of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, Liverpool colleagues, duking out the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations final for Senegal and Egypt. Or of how proud the same league was that it decisively shaped the club careers of Argentinian World Cup winners like Emiliano Martinez and Alexis Mac Allister.
The Premier League is seldom modest about its reach and the calibre of its stars. Nor is its boldest new challenger in the business of aggressive recruitment, Saudi Arabia’s Pro League.
Among the Pro League’s new arrivals in last summer’s huge spend were serially successful international achievers, footballers with ambitions to keep adding to the honours they hold with their countries.
Yet, by the middle of this month, the Saudi Pro League will be looking at a disappointing tally of medals being brought home from the major tournaments, the Asian Cup and Afcon, where, between them, more than 50 Pro League players have been on duty.
The elimination of Saudi Arabia at the first knockout stage of the Asian Cup, on penalties to South Korea, has put into question aspects of the Saudi strategy of expensive hiring from abroad.
Roberto Mancini, brought in as stellar head coach of the national team, has not met expectations. Mancini has at the same time asked legitimate questions about the detrimental impact on the Green Falcons of so many foreign players coming into the Pro League, if it is at the cost of first-team opportunities for Saudi talent.
It has not been a good month for most of the large fleet of Africans employed in the Pro League. Senegal, the title-holders, were ousted, on penalties, in the last 16, a heavy blow to Mane, captain Kalidou Koulibaly, Al Ahli goalkeeper Edu Mendy and striker Habib Diallo, all of whom moved from European clubs to Saudi Arabia.
It would be a stretch to assign a collective loss of competitive edge on their change of club environment, particularly when both Mane, who had an unhappy 2022/23 at Bayern Munich, and Koulibaly, who talks of his move from Chelsea to Al Hilal as “one of the best decisions I made in my life,” are clearly happier in Saudi Arabia than they were at their previous clubs.
Koulibaly will resume his club season at the top of the Saudi Pro League. Diallo, with two goals at Afcon, was sharp enough in Ivory Coast, indeed rather sharper than he has been for Al Shabab. Mane had a frustrating Afcon, but had entered it in form for Al Nassr, with eight Pro League goals and four assists in 18 matches since becoming Cristiano Ronaldo’s attacking partner.
But none of the Senegalese will be showing off fresh Afcon gold medals to colleagues in Riyadh or Jeddah. Nor can Riyad Mahrez return to Al Ahli with a broad smile. His Algeria, inspired by Mahrez to the 2019 Afcon title, suffered a humiliating group-phase exit in Ivory Coast. Mahrez, the captain, had so little influence he was dropped from the starting line-up by match day three.
Mahrez, a treble winner with Manchester City last year, has strong numbers from his first five months in the Pro League (19 games, 15 goal contributions) but by the account he gave to L’Equipe, the standards there are not as taxing as the English league, where Mahrez spent a decade with Leicester and Manchester City.
“The Saudi league has real quality,” he told the French newspaper. “But you can’t compare it with Europe. But in the near future, at the current rate, it can be one of the five, six or seven best leagues in the world.”
Mahrez has heard criticism of his physical conditioning since he left City, and of his work-rate, especially off the ball. “He puts in a minimum of effort,” the former Saudi Arabia player Mohammed Noor said in November, echoing the view of other commentators, and chiming with the shrill criticism these last two weeks of his Afcon performances.
Across the dismal Cup of Nations for the North African teams, other Pro League players have been singled out for failings. Romain Saiss, Morocco’s totem defender and a summer addition to Al Shabab’s squad, was at fault for the first South African goal in the 2-0 upset that put Morocco out at the last-16 stage.
Ahmed Hegazy, a Pro League champion with Al Ittihad, has received criticism in Egypt for transforming from a pillar of a famously mean Pharaohs defence to the senior man in a team that left Afcon, at the first knockout hurdle, having leaked seven goals in four games, three of them from simple crosses into an Egyptian penalty area lacking its trademark vigilance.
The Pro League has some star ambassadors still at Afcon. If Ivory Coast are to build on their fortunate progress to the knockouts – they only scraped through as the fourth-best of the third-placed group phase finishers – they will continue to thank Franck Kessie, a league champion the last two years with AC Milan and Barcelona and now at Al Ahli.
Without Kessie’s two penalties, one a late equaliser in the last-16 tie against Senegal and the other the decider in the shoot-out that followed, Ivory Coast would be out.
Kessie and Seko Fofana, of Al Nassr, are the main cogs in the Ivorians’ midfield. It’s an engine that has spluttered at times. But if they find their higher gears against Mali on Saturday, the hosts will be in the semi-finals and Kessie and Fofana two games away from bringing a little gold back to their new Gulf homes.