It’s not just big-name players who are moving to the pro league.
The Saudi Pro League’s impressive run of form continues after spending more than €800 million in the transfer window.
So far this year, we’ve seen the likes of Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane and N’Golo Kante, among others, head to the Middle East. However, it is not just the case of players who have opted to swap continents. Many managers who are household names in Europe have also made their way into the region.
It is a very different challenge for a coach at this level to go from Europe to Saudi. Yes, there has been a massive infusion of cash into the league. But compared to other leagues globally, the competitiveness is still in its early stages.
Matt Monaghan is the head of English content for Gulf sports website Sports360X. He explained to Football Now that coaches coming from Europe may notice some differences when they reach Saudi.
“In fact, it is a chance to reach the bottom of a league that has immense ambitions. It is self-proclaimed that it has some way to go. We have seen people like Cristiano Ronaldo and Nuno Espirito Santo say so themselves The facilities may not be at the level of a top-five league yet, but the plans are in place.”
“So, if you’re a manager coming in now, you can play a really influential role in helping to build that. It’s the decision; can you stay in Europe with, maybe, an average team or can you stay in Saudi Arabia.” “Can go and try something different with huge potential for growth.” Matt continued.
In the summer of 2022, Nuno Espirito Santo took over as Pro League champions Al-Ittihad manager. He brought a number of big names to Jeddah in the summer, including former Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema. Rumors of a dispute between Nuno and Benzema spread after Ittihad lost 2-0 to Iraqi side Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the AFC Champions League, followed soon after by news that the Portuguese had been sacked.
Reports suggest that Benzema’s dissatisfaction with Nuno’s coaching methods, rather than Al-Ittihad’s recent lack of form, largely influenced the decision. Do star big players have significant power in their new clubs, where their employers value their presence so highly?
Monaghan added, “I think star power is a product of 21st century football.”
“It’s not necessarily something unique to Saudi Arabia. We’ve seen players like Benzema and others have that power at clubs like Real Madrid. A great example of that would be when Rafa Benitez was in charge at the Bernabeu. He really struggled. Had to turn the dressing room around. However, I think it is interesting to note that in the first game after Nuno’s departure, Benzema scored a hat-trick and provided a brilliant assist.
Former Liverpool captain and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard is settling into life in Saudi after arriving in the country in the summer. His time at Villa was less successful than he hoped, but Gerrard has a winning pedigree. He was a European Cup winner while playing for Liverpool, and began his managerial career by winning the Scottish Premier League with Glasgow Rangers. In July 2023, Gerrard was announced as head coach at Dammam-based Al-Ettifaq.
According to Babagol founder Uri Levy, this is an important appointment.
“It’s a win-win situation for both sides. Gerrard needs a fresh start and a place where he can, you know, put his fingerprints on his football. I don’t want to say that He will have unlimited resources, but he will have very generous resources in choosing his players and his methods.”
Along with managers who have taken jobs in the Pro League, Italy’s Roberto Mancini has achieved what many would consider the top spot: the Saudi Arabia national team.
“Mancini is actually the big headline. We’re talking about a guy who is champion of Europe with Italy. Obviously, it’s important from a PR perspective because he’s a big name. But what’s less known is This is what they are planning for player development. The opportunity for young players to work with Mancini and his team is a good way to showcase Saudi progress in football.” Explained to Uri.
While Saudi Arabia is clearly becoming a major hotspot for top footballers, it is clear why managers are attracted to it. As the quality of players and coaches continues to rise, it is an exciting time to follow football in the Middle East.