Saudi Arabia’s top soccer competition has been around for almost half a century, but it has been a universal curiosity among soccer lovers only since the beginning of this year.
In January, Cristiano Ronaldo shocked planet fútbol by leaving Europe after almost two decades and signing a contract with Riyadh-based club Al Nassr. The terms of the Portuguese superstar’s pact were every bit as eye-popping: Ronaldo’s contract was — and still is — the richest in the sport’s long history, a whopping $550 million over two years.
Fans all over the globe understandably wanted to watch Ronaldo play with his new team. It was surprisingly difficult. Games from the Saudi Pro League — officially known as the Roshn Saudi League — were almost impossible to find anywhere.
That has changed this season, with the league sealing media rights agreements in scores of countries, including with FOX in the United States and across the Caribbean, in both English and Spanish.
The 2023-24 campaign begins Friday, when Al Ahli meets Al Hazem (1 p.m. ET on FOX Soccer Plus/FOX Deportes/FOX Sports app).
Ronaldo is the biggest get by Saudi Arabia, but he’s far from the only one.
A steady stream of elite players have followed the 38-year-old from some of Europe’s top clubs to the oil-rich gulf state, including Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez.
What else is there to know about the Saudi league? Answers to some frequently asked questions are below:
Why has Saudi Arabia suddenly become a top destination for players?
Money — lots of it. Under what the kingdom calls Vision 2030, a government program intended to boost the west Asian nation “socially, culturally and economically,” the Saudis have grand ambitions within sports in general and the world’s most popular one specifically.
Backed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, clubs have thrown outlandish sums at some of Europe’s best-known pros, offering several multiples of their already bloated salaries. Henderson, for instance, will make about $47 million a year with Al Ettifaq — about four times the amount he earned last season as the Reds captain.
Most of the deals have been for good but not great players, most of them past their prime. That doesn’t mean the league and its clubs haven’t swung for the fences: Al Hilal reportedly was willing to pay Kylian Mbappé a gaudy $776 million for this season alone. The club made a serious play for Lionel Messi worth about $1.65 billion before that. In both cases, the players declined.
What’s the league’s history?
The Saudi Pro League was formed in 1976 and currently has 18 clubs. Four — Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Riyadh and Al Shabab — are based in the country’s capital and largest city, Riyadh. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second biggest metropolis, is home to Al Ahli and AlIttihad.
Despite adding Ronaldo midseason, Al Nassr didn’t win the title last season; Al Hilal claimed its record 18th instead.
The season runs from August to May, like most major European leagues. The bottom three clubs in the table are relegated to the second tier at the end of each season, with the top three from that league promoted to the top flight.
Who else plays in Saudi Arabia?
Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozović joined Ronaldo at Al Nassr, fresh off leading Inter Milan to the 2023 UEFA Champions League final. So did former Bayern Munich winger Sadio Mané and Alex Telles, a Brazilian international fullback and Ronaldo’s onetime Manchester United teammate.
Alongside Mahrez at Al Ahli is ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Édouard Mendy, ex-Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino and another Brazilian national teamer, center back Roger Ibañez. N’Golo Kante, a key member of France’s 2018 World Cup winning team, is at Al Ittihad with his countryman Benzema.
Teams are also targeting lower level stars, such as Armenian international Lucas Zelarayán, who Al-Fateh recently signed away from the Columbus Crew of MLS.
It’s not just players who have been lured, either; former Tottenham, Porto, Valencia and Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo is at Al Ittihad. Meantime, Henderson will be coached at Al Ettifaq by fellow Liverpool great Steven Gerrard.
Which are the top clubs?
With twice as many domestic titles as any other team, Al Hilal is the RSL’s most successful club by far. Al Hilal, which has four AFC Champions League crowns, finished second at the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup, losing 5-3 in the final to Real Madrid.
Al Ittihad is easily the best supported Saudi club, drawing an average attendance of more than 40,000 at the 60,000-seat King Fahd Stadium. It has the second-most titles, with nine.
Al Nassr also has nine titles. It drew the second most fans last season, around 18,000 per game. (The league average is less than 10,000.)
Just eight clubs have won the championship. Al Shabab has six titles. Al Ahli has three, Al Ettifaq two, and Al Fateh one.
How good is the Saudi league?
Ronaldo isn’t exactly impartial, but for what it’s worth he claims the RSL is superior to MLS.
That the recent influx of top talent will improve the competition isn’t up for debate. How much of a boost is, and that remains to be seen. The overwhelming majority of rosters are comprised of local products.
Many of those are quality players — all 26 members of the national team that stunned eventual champion Argentina at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were contracted to Saudi clubs at the time. With a growing collection of familiar faces on display, many fans will tune in to see what all the fuss is all about — especially now that they can.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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