A brief look at the number of high-profile names on the books of the 16 Saudi Professional League clubs is enough indication of the calibre of the Middle East’s most competitive league.
With 116 international players representing 39 countries, the SPL is truly global, attracting players from as far as Brazil, France and Australia and as close as Morocco, Egypt and Syria.
Australian goalkeeper Brad Jones is a prime example of the fine crop of international footballers plying their trade in the SPL and calling Saudi Arabia home for them and their families.
The former Liverpool shot-stopper moved to Saudi in the summer of 2018 and made an instant impact by helping Riyadh-based giants Al Nassr to a domestic league title that they had last won in 2015. He has carried the good form into this season, keeping seven clean sheets in Nassr’s first nine games of the season to pick up back-to-back goalkeeper of the month awards.
The strong appetite Saudi fans have for football and their deep attachment to their clubs were a pleasant surprise for Jones upon his arrival in the Kingdom.
“I was surprised, in a good way, by how many fans turn out to games here,” said the 37-year-old Perth native.
“There’s a big following over here and some big stadiums that get filled out. It was a nice surprise and something that is enjoyable. You want to play in front of a lot of fans and packed arenas.
“The Saudis are passionate about football and that creates a buzz around the league and the teams that are involved.
“When the fans are turning out and there’s a buzz around the game and we can then put on a good show for the fans, then this is always going to create the interest.”
Five different sides have won the league title since 2012, a testament to how strong and engaging the competition is.
“When you go into games, any team can win. That makes it difficult but also good to watch,” the September and October SPL goalkeeper of the month said.
The veteran Aussie is one name on a long list of high-profile international players signed from clubs all over the world, and Jones believes the influx of foreign talent has helped the league grow and increased its popularity and value.
“The rules changed to bring in more foreigners, which has created more interest in the league,” added a player who has also called the Netherlands home in stints with NEC and Feyenoord prior to his Saudi stint.
“You’ll see in the Asian Champions League that Saudi teams have been performing very well. That shows the strength of the competition.”
Winning the league title in his debut season in SPL did not go unnoticed among Jones’ fellow Australian players who asked him if they should consider a move to Saudi.
He added: “I’ve had quite a number of phone calls of people asking me how it is and if they should bother even talking to clubs. My response has been yes.
“It’s a place that is growing and you are part of the development and the quicker it grows, the more interest there’s going to be in it and the better it’s going to get.”
Jones anticipates the relationship between Saudi clubs and Australian players will continue to grow.
“I think Australian players coming from Australia give value for money,” said Jones, who played 27 games for Liverpool over five seasons from 2011-15.
“When clubs are looking at it, you’ve got hard-working professional players with good ability and maybe without having to pay that top bracket if they have to take players from Europe.
“There’s definitely something in there for the Saudi teams to look over at the Australian league and get good quality.”
As the appeal of the SPL continues to grow regionally and internationally and with the competition so strong, the eyes of national team coaches can’t miss some of the talents in the league.
Despite some of them moving from top European leagues, they have managed to keep their places in the national teams thanks to their form and the high standard of football.
“In our club, we’ve got Ahmed Musa and Nordin Amrabat who are still being picked for their national teams [Nigeria and Morocco],” added a player capped six times by the Socceroos.
“It shows that the national coaches are looking here and they’re happy with the continued growth and performance of the teams here.”
Despite a less than ideal start to their title defence, Jones and his team-mates are starting to find their feet again, recently beating local rivals Al Hilal to close the gap on them and climb to second place in the SPL.
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