Will the Saudi Pro League stand the test of time?

Cristiano Ronaldo during a game.

Cristiano Ronaldo has brought the sport light on the Saudi Pro League after he joined Al Nassr. Photo: EPA

Published Jul 8, 2023


The Saudi Pro League has been one of the main talking points in football circles since the start of 2023. The Gulf nation is aiming to pump money into its football league to not only boost the profile of the nation as a tourism destination but also with a view to launch a bid for the 2030 World Cup.

The Saudis have been spending outrageous amounts of money as they look to significantly improve the profile of their domestic league. The trend started with them acquiring the services of Cristiano Ronaldo in January. Since then, they have shown that they do not just want to become a retirement village for aged superstars beyond their prime. They have signed the likes of Ruben Neves (26), Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy (31), and Marcelo Brozovic (30) who most recently captained Inter Milan during their Uefa Champions League final loss against Manchester City.

While other league signings like N’golo Kante, Karim Benzema, and Roberto Firmino are beyond their prime, they are still more than capable of churning out world-class displays and would not have been short of offers had they wished to continue their careers at the highest level in Europe.

Critics of Saudi Arabia have accused the government of promoting the league in order to suppress information and criticism of alleged human rights violations in the country. Some also feel the Saudi league’s current level of spending is unsustainable and it will go the way of the Chinese Super League which, after bursting onto the scene in the latter part of the last decade, has since faded into obscurity.

The current Saudi revolution has plenty of life to it and will not stop anytime soon. Time will tell whether the league ultimately succeeds or not.

Saudi Arabia has a better chance of succeeding than China. For one, it already has a competitive football team. The nation is still far from being a powerhouse in football but they are giants in Asia and are capable of being competitive at least against any nation in the world – at the 2022 World Cup they inflicted a shock defeat over eventual world champions Argentina in the group stage.

The Chinese League also collapsed because it was in large part funded by property entrepreneurs in China. The property market in China was heavily destroyed due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic among other factors.

Chinese Super League clubs Jiangsu FC, Chongqing, and Hebei have all folded. Guangzhou Evergrande, which previously had the likes of Fabio Cannavaro, Luiz Felipe Scolari, and Marcelo Lippi as coaches, was relegated and now plays in the Chinese League One as Guangzhou FC.

The Saudi League is funded by the Saudi Public Investment Fund which is not going to go bankrupt anytime soon.

It remains to be seen if their enthusiasm towards throwing large amounts of money into football will be sustained. Their current model is bringing interest to their league but not development.