Saudi Arabia’s elite football league- Pro League Football of Saudi has existed for nearly half a century, but it has only recently piqued the interest of football fans worldwide.
Cristiano Ronaldo stunned the football world in January by quitting Europe after nearly two decades and signing a contract with Riyadh-based club Al Nassr. The terms of Ronaldo’s contract were as eye-popping: a stunning $550 million over two years, it was — and still is — the wealthiest in the sport’s storied history.
Fans from all over the world were naturally excited to see Ronaldo play with his new squad. It was unexpectedly difficult. The Saudi Pro League, formally known as the Roshn Saudi League, was nearly impossible to obtain anywhere.
This season, the league has signed television rights agreements in several nations, including with FOX in the United States and the Caribbean, in both English and Spanish.
Ronaldo is Saudi Arabia’s most valuable acquisition, but he is far from alone.
A constant stream of great players, including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez, have followed the 38-year-old from some of Europe’s top teams to the oil-rich Gulf state.
Why has Pro League Saudi suddenly become a top destination for players?
There is a lot of money. Under Vision 2030, a government program aimed at boosting the West Asian nation “socially, culturally, and economically,” the Saudis have lofty goals for sports in general, and football in particular.
Clubs have thrown outrageous sums at some of Europe’s best-known pros, offering several multiples of their already bloated pay, backed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Henderson, for example, will earn almost $47 million per year with Al Ettifaq, which is roughly four times what he made as Reds captain last season.
The majority of the transactions have been for decent but not great players, most of whom are past their prime. That doesn’t mean the league and its clubs haven’t tried their hardest: Al Hilal reportedly wanted to pay Kylian Mbappé $776 million just for this season. Before that, the club launched a serious bid for Lionel Messi for approximately $1.65 billion. The players declined in both circumstances.
What’s the Saudi Pro League’s history?
The Saudi Pro League was established in 1976 and now consists of 18 clubs. Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Riyadh, and Al Shabab are all situated in Riyadh, the country’s capital and largest city. Al Ahli and Al-Ittihad are based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city.
Despite the addition of Ronaldo midseason, Al Nassr did not win the title last season; Al Hilal took the record 18th.
Like most major European leagues, the season spans from August to May. At the end of each season, the bottom three clubs in the table are relegated to the second tier, with the top three from that league promoted to the top flight.
Who else plays in Saudi Arabia?
After guiding Inter Milan to the UEFA Champions League final in 2023, Croatian player Marcelo Brozovi joined Ronaldo at Al Nassr. Sadio Mané, a former Bayern Munich winger, and Alex Telles, a Brazilian international fullback and former Manchester United colleague of Ronaldo, both agreed.
Along with Mahrez, ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, ex-Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino, and another Brazilian national teamer, center defender Roger Ibanez, play for Al Ahli. N’Golo Kante, a vital player in France’s World Cup-winning team in 2018, is at Al Ittihad alongside Benzema.
Teams are also interested in lower-level players like Armenian international Lucas Zelarayán, whom Al-Fateh just signed away from the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.
Al Hilal is the RSL’s most successful club, having won twice as many domestic titles as any other team. Al Hilal, which has four AFC Champions League titles, finished second at the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup, losing 5-3 to Real Madrid in the final.
Al Ittihad is by far the most popular Saudi team, with an average attendance of over 40,000 at the 60,000-seat King Fahd Stadium. With nine titles, it ranks second.
Al Nassr has nine titles as well. Last season, it had the second-highest attendance, with roughly 18,000 people attending each game. (The league average is under 10,000.)
The title has only been won by eight clubs. Al Shabab possesses six titles. Three belong to Al Ahli, two to Al Ettifaq, and one to Al Fateh.
How good is the Saudi Pro League?
Ronaldo isn’t quite objective, but he believes the RSL is greater than the MLS.
The latest surge of outstanding talent will undoubtedly boost competition. How big of a lift there is remains to be seen. The vast majority of rosters are made up of local products.
Many of them are top-tier players; for example, all 26 members of the national team who upset eventual champion Argentina at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were under contract with Saudi clubs at the time. Many fans will tune in to see what all the hoopla is about, especially now that they can.