Saudi Arabia hopes that the inflow of global players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar into their club football would help the national team win the Asian Cup for the first time in 28 years.
Saudi Pro League clubs have spent heavily to attract big-name players, and Saudi Arabia is poised to host the 2034 World Cup, all as part of a larger push into global sport.
The Saudis begin their Asian Cup campaign against Oman on Tuesday, led by Roberto Mancini, who led his home Italy to European Championship triumph in 2021.
The national team defeated eventual World Cup winners Argentina in the group round of the 2022 World Cup and will be one of the favorites in Qatar for the Asian Cup.
According to Saleh al-Khalif, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Riyadiya newspaper, playing against and alongside the likes of Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane, and others made it “impossible (for Saudi players) not to benefit.”
“We hope that this strong competition will have a butterfly effect on the team,” he went on to say.
Only the English Premier League spent more on players this summer than Saudi Pro League teams.
Domestic players have risen to the occasion, with Al-Ahly attacker Firas Al-Buraikan starting ahead of former Liverpool favorite Roberto Firmino.
Despite Al-Hilal’s plethora of fresh talents, national team mainstays Salem Al-Dawsari, Ali Al-Bulaihi, and Saud Abdulhamid have all featured consistently.
“The popularity and competitiveness of the league, in addition to competition with foreign players, has actually raised the level of local players,” Ahmed Ezz El-Din, an Egyptian pundit on SSC TV, stated.
In the long run?
Not everyone feels the buying binge will improve the national squad, which has won the Asian Cup three times but has not reached the final since 2007.
Several players who played in the memorable 2-1 World Cup victory against Argentina little over a year ago have lost their club positions due to the advent of foreign talent.
The influence has been seen strongly at Al-Hilal, which signed Serbian duo Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, Brazilian Malcom, Portugal’s Ruben Neves, and Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly in addition to Neymar.
Mancini left more than a dozen World Cup players off his Asian Cup team, but injuries also played a role.
Nelo Vingada, the Portuguese coach who led Saudi Arabia to the continental title in 1996, finds no link between the high-profile signings and the national team.
“The quality of the Saudi league has become better now but in my opinion it will not benefit the Saudi national team,” he said on the website Kooora.
Ezz El-Din feels the Saudi league’s expenditures will not be completely realized for many years.
“In the short term, foreign players take chances to play from local players,” he went on to say.
“But in the long term, local players come into contact with players of Ronaldo’s level and that reflects positively on their technique, commitment and discipline.”
The next Asian Cup will be held in Saudi Arabia in 2027.