Saudi Professional League 2010-20: Stellar buys, mixed messages and frantic firings

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Bafetimbi Gomis (EPA).

Another decade of Saudi Professional League-action will soon come to a close.

The bare statistics show the usual names – bar Al Fateh’s miraculous 2012/13 upset for the ages – of Al Hilal (three), Al Nassr (three), Al Ahli Jeddah and Al Shabab enjoying title success.

But this hardly scratches the surface. Here are some of the key talking points from 10 years of elite Middle Eastern action:

PROGRESS, AT A COST?

A tension between grand ambitions and domestic responsibilities defined the Kingdom’s top flight throughout the latter part of this era.

Should the SPL act, first, as incubator for one of Asia’s great national team? A repeat of the 12-year absence from World Cups recorded between 2006 and 2018, plus successive group-stage exits at the 2011 and 2015 Asian Cups, cannot be tolerated at a time when global perceptions of Saudi potency are critical.

Or should it be fully engaged in promulgating the Saudi Vision 2030 principles that underpin the country’s fresh outreaching policies and garner renewed interest – from home and abroad – in the competition? If this is the overriding priority, attracting the likes of big-money foreigners, such as Hilal’s ex-France centre forward Bafetimbi Gomis, becomes essential.

The abiding message from this decade is how taxing it is to twin these two aforementioned aims.

2019/20’s ongoing average attendance of 9,540 is the largest of the decade, while the league claims approximately 90 per cent of Saudis now watch videos on their mobile each month with a record 1.8 million football fans streaming last season’s Riyadh derby between Hilal and Nassr. The SPL also ranked third on Twitter in 2018/19 among global football leagues for conversation and interaction, with more than 80m tweets made by 40m accounts.

But missteps in the nascent months of Herve Renard’s contemporary reign with the Green Falcons, a spell that contains only a miserly five points from three World Cup 2022 second-round qualifiers, has reignited debate about a lack of opportunity.

2710 saudi pro league XI

This is where nuanced application of the foreign quota is crucial – and telling.

2016/17’s opening day, when the SPL last utilised the AFC’s four non-Saudis rule, featured an average of 8.6 indigenous players per team. By 2018/19’s high-water mark of eight foreigners, on the back of the previous year’s game-changing $340m injection by the General Sports Authority, this figure reduced to 4.8.

The squad that roared towards the last World Cup has experienced game-time being rapidly stripped away since qualification was achieved in September 2017.

No wonder results and performances have, subsequently, dipped – most egregiously with the shameful opening 5-0 defeat to hosts Russia at the summer tournament.

At the same moment, however, interest inside or outside the Kingdom has never been greater in the SPL. The bold, attention-grabbing blueprint of the Turki Al Sheikh-era at the GSA worked wonders, in that regards.

An unprecedented three of 2019’s four AFC Champions League quarter-finalists came from Saudi. This was in no small part to the sterling efforts of record-breaking Nassr striker Abderazzak Hamdallah, Hilal’s Italy magician Sebastian Giovinco and Al Ittihad’s electric Brazilian forward Romarinho.

The middle ground remains elusive as ever.

AL SOMAH STANDS OUT

Living legends have graced the nation’s grounds.

Brazil playmaker Thiago Neves and Sweden winger Christian Wilhelmsson heralded the dawn of a brave new era. Hilal team-mates Mohammad Al Shalhoub and Yasser Al Qahtani, plus Ahli midfielder Taisir Al Jassim, proudly represent the brilliance of Saudi Arabia stars, while Gomis and Hamdallah headline 2018’s flood of elite arrivals.

Among an exalted field, one name, however, stands out.

Omar Al Somah arrived at Ahli as a virtual unknown in July 2014. An uncommon skill set has witnessed the 30-year-old become an icon.

He is imbued with a predator’s desire, hulking frame of a heavyweight boxer, delicate touch with both feet, aerial ability of an NBA star and eye for the spectacular. This mix made him destined to earn the moniker ‘Syrian Ibrahimovic’.

Omar Al Somah (EPA).

Omar Al Somah (EPA).

The statuesque striker became the immortal inspiration behind 2015/16’s first SPL crown in 32 years for a club, rather optimistically, nicknamed ‘Fortress of Trophies’. Memorable moments along the way included a hat-trick versus Nassr, plus trio against Al Raed upon his return from a ban.

Down the stretch, he would score at least once in all of their last eight matches. Critically, this included a double against Hilal which ensured their great rival finished second.

His collection now stands at 108 goals in 114 SPL run-outs, and counting, plus he’s a three-time top scorer.

For ability, impact and longevity, Al Somah is unmatched.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS

Many things are afforded to coaches in Saudi – time is not one of them.

Only last Saturday, the No1 trending topic on Saudi Twitter was #sackGross after Christian’s third spell at Ahli began with an awful 2-1 loss at Al Hazem.

An image of capricious club owners has been reinforced, rather than weakened, this decade. Mountains of extra money have also exacerbated their endemic ‘hire and fire’ culture.

These choices have ramifications far beyond direct results and a coach’s job security.

An average 12.8 permanent tacticians have departed Saudi clubs per season during competition via the sack, resignation or mutual consent from 2010/11-2018/19. For added context, the competition only grew to 16 teams from 14 in the last of these campaigns.

This number has also been significantly inflated by 2017/18’s 16 and last term’s record 20 departures.

For 2019/20, Ahli’s Branko Ivankovic and Al Wehda’s Mario Cvitanovic were hired in the summer and sacked by mid-September. Promoted Damac’s Mohammed Kouki, Fateh’s Fathi Al Jabal and Ittihad’s Jose Luis Sierra have followed them to the departure lounge.

This tally even by Asian standards is remarkable. The Chinese Super League, for example, averaged 7.8 per season from 2011-19 (always 16 teams) and the UAE’s Arabian Gulf League only 7.6 (12 teams from 2010-12 and 17/18, 14 teams otherwise).

Slaven Bilic (EPA).

Slaven Bilic (EPA).

Avowed SPL aspirations to become one of the top-10 leagues in the world also mean comparisons with European giants are pertinent. Even though the Premier League (6.8), Serie A (12.3) and La Liga (9.9) all contained 20 outfits throughout the studied period, their average exits per season were lower than the SPL’s.

This standout managerial churn in the Kingdom has extensive repercussions.

The $340m injection from two years ago also included essential, and belated, payments to FIFA for outstanding transfer fees and wages, plus compensation claims. These arrears had precluded the likes of Nassr and Ittihad – who alone owed $82m – from competing in the ACL.

This wanton wastage ensured sizeable sums being splurged on players that are essential to one manager, and expendable to another. Ittihad during 2018/19’s living nightmare made 24 signings and sanctioned 34 exits, plus hired Ramon Diaz, Slaven Bilic and Sierra – for a second stint in eight months – as permanent coaches.

Ukraine legend Serhiy Rebrov was cut loose from Ahli, at huge cost, after the 2017/18 title was narrowly lost. World Cup 2006 winning captain Fabio Cannavaro lasted from October 2015-February 2016 at dysfunctional Nassr, while last term saw Hilal lure Zoran Mamic back to the Kingdom from Al Ain and subsequently dismiss him after 16 unsatisfactory fixtures.

These choices deny consistency in tactics, training and opportunities. They also continually put the brakes on an, ostensibly, upwardly mobile competition.

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