When Bafetimbi Gomis, Sebastian Giovinco, Ahmed Musa, Brad Jones and Andre Carrillo landed in Saudi Arabia during 2018/19’s great splurge, the nation’s clubs were making a statement.
Backed by the General Sports Authority, one of the world’s best-supported competitions intended to start leaving a requisite imprint – beyond even the Kingdom’s borders. Amid the hoopla generated by the thousands of fans who packed King Khalid International Airport to greet several of these stellar additions, other less-exalted buys sparked fewer headlines.
Yet fast forward to March 2021 and only Gomis and Abderrazak Hamdallah can be indisputably considered greater successes in the Saudi Professional League than Romarinho.
The Brazilian is both a poster boy about what can be achieved – and where much of the league’s business is headed.
Romarinho’s rollercoaster journey with Al Ittihad reached new heights last weekend. Pictures of the €7 million signing from Al Jazira cradling the match ball after his first hat-trick in Saudi Arabia during the 4-2 triumph versus Al Wehda both exemplified a laudable impact, plus the path he’s dragged the wild Tigers along.
Twice Romarinho was the, often-solitary, shining light at a rudderless outfit who steered away from the relegation zone at the death. Now, he’s the joint-third highest scorer for a club in third who hold pretensions of ending a 12-year SPL title drought.
These ambitions face an acid test versus surprise leaders Al Shabab on Wednesday.
Argentina maverick Ever Banega and ex-Manchester United loanee Odion Ighalo are in opposition. Ittihad no longer boasts names of similar cache.
But astute management from the exceptional Fabio Carille and Romarinho’s inspirational example on the pitch have lifted this fallen giant off its knees.
The 30-year-old is the SPL’s joint-fourth-highest scorer since 2018/19’s kick-off on 42 goals, trailing only the peerless trio of Al Nassr’s Hamdallah, Gomis and Al Ahli Jeddah’s Syria superstar Omar Al Somah.
None of them have been faced with the very real threat of relegation, in this period.
At Ittihad, Romarinho’s haul is 22 more than inconsistent Serbia hit man Aleksandar Prijovic and 23 more than Saudi star Fahad Al Muwallad – who was hamstrung by a lengthy ban.
Subtract the former mentioned’s strikes and the Jeddah outfit would, surely, have been demoted for the first time in their 94-year history.
Romarinho’s rise above Ittihad’s travails also puts him joint-fourth on the division’s all-time scoring list for Brazilians.
He was, though, only bought as an adornment.
Greater expectations were placed on €9m Curacao winger Garry Rodrigues, €4.5m Morocco centre-back Manuel da Costa and even Internacional loanee Valdivia. None touched the standards set by their dreadlocked team-mate.
Romarinho’s career has, largely, been spent outside the game’s spotlight. He was a regular substitute for Corinthians, before successful spells in Qatar with El Jaish and the UAE with Jazira.
But it is the very joy he’d previously enjoyed in the region which boosted chances of prospering at King Abdullah Sports City.
Players of Banega, Gomis and Ighalo’s standing will still be brought to the Kingdom. But they have become fewer in number.
Small to mid-range purchases will dominate, elite free agents supplementing them.
The slow adaption of Luciano Vietto at Al Hilal after October’s €7m switch from Sporting Lisbon points to the challenges of operating in this area.
Saudi challengers will be wise to concentrate on identifying as many Romarinhos as possible, rather than dreaming about the next Musa-sized splash. It just makes sense.