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Saudi Pro League clubs must snap up best Asian talent

French forward Karim Benzema, who signed up for champions Al-Ittihad, leads the list of latest big-name arrivals into Saudi Arabia’s professional football league. (AFP)
French forward Karim Benzema, who signed up for champions Al-Ittihad, leads the list of latest big-name arrivals into Saudi Arabia’s professional football league. (AFP)
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19 Jun 2023 03:06:34 GMT9
19 Jun 2023 03:06:34 GMT9
  • As some of the world’s most famous players look to move from Europe, the Kingdom’s clubs should not ignore talent to the East

Paul Williams

Saudi Arabian football has changed, and is changing the face of Asian football with it.

Few could have predicted the pace of change within the country as recently as six months ago, but the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo accelerated plans to reshape football in the country; plans that have been turbocharged in recent weeks.

While missing out on the prized signature of Lionel Messi was a blow, a host of other big names are on the verge of joining Karim Benzema as headline arrivals this off-season.

With Saudi Arabia hosting the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 2027, bidding for the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup, and having had Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser Al-Misehal elected to both the AFC and FIFA executive committees, the desire for the Kingdom to play a leading role in Asian football is clear for all to see.

With the stated ambition of making the Saudi Pro League one of the top 10 leagues in the world within the next decade, achieving that would mean it being regarded as the best in Asia.

If that is the ambition, and if it wants to take its role as a leader of the continent seriously and develop Asian football as a collective, then there is one thing it can do to ensure that is the case – become a hothouse of the best regional talent.

As leagues around the continent, including, regrettably, the AFC Champions League itself, are removing the previous “plus one” quota for AFC players, Saudi Arabia could lead by example if it ensured that some of the money it is spending on foreign talent extended to offering opportunities to the best players of Asia.

It need not come at the expense of headline names like N’Golo Kante, Sergio Ramos or Neymar. With eight foreign spots per club, there is plenty of room across the league.

And with so many headline names coming in, players all over the continent would naturally be attracted to the Kingdom to play with stars they could only dream of coming up against in Europe.

The SPL is no stranger to some of the best names in Asian football.

Syrian pair Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khrbin took the league by storm with Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal respectively, the latter even being named Asian Player of the Year in 2017, while Al-Somah won three consecutive Golden Boots on his way to becoming one of the continent’s most feared competitors.

This off-season already, we have seen some of Asia’s biggest names linked to Saudi Arabia.

South Korea’s Son Heung-min and Iran’s Mehdi Taremi are reportedly two names high on the list of those the Kingdom would like to attract, and with good reason given their pedigree.

But if clubs showed a little imagination and adventure, they could also unlock enormous markets to grow the reach of the league.

At just 18 years of age, Indonesia’s Marselino Ferdinan is regarded as one of his nation’s most promising young talents. A precocious player, he is now a regular with the senior national team, having made his debut aged just 17, and will be the headline act for Indonesia at next year’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.

In football-mad Indonesia, his every move is followed and chronicled by fans desperate to develop a major international star. He already has an Instagram following of 1.7 million – more than Al-Shabab and Al-Ahli combined.

Providing a platform for Marselino to flourish, and opening the SPL up to the football-crazy market of Indonesia, would be a win-win.

At the other end of the age spectrum, a player like Maya Yoshida would add plenty of experience and leadership.

Still only 34, the former Japan national team captain is on the lookout for a new club after departing German outfit Schalke last month.

As one of Japan’s most capped players, having played well over 100 times for his country, including at three World Cups including last year in Qatar, he comes with a wealth of European experience having played in the Eredivisie, Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga.

With Al-Nassr in need of experienced defenders, and with a tour of Japan just a few weeks away, they could do far worse than the former Southampton captain.

Given the large Indian population within Saudi Arabia, estimated to be close to three million, it would make sense to look to the South Asian nation to tap into that huge market.

A player like defender Sandesh Jhingan would fit the bill perfectly. A quality defender, who had a stint in Europe cut short by injury, the 29-year-old is ambitious and would embrace the chance to play at a higher level and test himself against some of the world’s best attacking talent.

As reported last month, Emirati sensation Yahya Al-Ghassani has attracted the interest of a number of clubs in the Kingdom, including champions Al-Ittihad.

Whoever it may be, and wherever they come from, if Saudi Arabia is serious about being a leader within Asian football, that should extend to developing and providing opportunities to some of this continent’s best players.

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