Ronaldo helps make SPL one of the world’s best leagues, says Real Madrid’s Nacho

Ronaldo helps make SPL one of the world’s best leagues, says Real Madrid’s Nacho
Ronaldo helps make SPL one of the world’s best leagues, says Real Madrid’s Nacho

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - DOHA: It is less than 14 months since Saudi Arabia last kicked off a major tournament — the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

That time around it started with a famous win over eventual champions Argentina. At the 2023 Asian Cup —which finally starts after a delay of six months — their opening opponent is Oman on Tuesday in Group G, with Kyrgyzstan and Thailand to follow.

There is unlikely to be the same early drama and excitement as in Qatar, but the Green Falcons’ focus is on lifting the trophy for the first time since last century.

Much has changed in Saudi Arabian football since November 2022, and the country is now the talk of the sporting world. If the win over Lionel Messi and co. was almost unthinkable, few would have believed that by January 2024, megastars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar would be playing in the Saudi Pro League. It brings attention as well as pressure.

Not getting out of the group would be unthinkable — only eight of the 24 teams fall at the first hurdle — but ambitions back in the Kingdom are obviously much higher. Only Japan have won the tournament more times than Saudi Arabia — though the last of their three titles came 28 years ago, and there has been no genuine challenge since 2007.

Now they have Roberto Mancini in charge. The former Manchester City and Inter Milan boss led Italy to the European Championship title in 2021 and could become one of the very few coaches to win separate continental titles. He has the tactical knowhow and, after several warm-up games and a couple of World Cup qualifiers, he knows a lot more about his players.

Those players now are active in the most talked about league in the world. With the massive influx of famous foreign stars, there is no doubt that standards have improved in the SPL. That was apparent in the just-finished group stage of the Asian Champions League. Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr all topped their groups and Al-Fayha, in a first continental appearance, also made it through to give Saudi Arabia four teams in the knockout stage.

It is not all down to the likes of Ronaldo, however. The local players have stepped up. Salem Al-Dawsari is the Asian player of the year and has been a standout even among the exalted talent in the league. He also loves the big occasion, as he showed when scoring the winner against Argentina.

The same can increasingly be said of Feras Al-Buraikan, who could be one of the stars of the tournament if he takes his club form to Qatar. The striker’s exploits in finishing last season as the fourth highest goalscorer in the league, ahead of Ronaldo, earned a big move to Al-Ahli. The goals have continued this campaign, too, and he sits in fourth in the scoring charts and is also in the top 10 for assists. His biggest challenge may be starting ahead of Saleh Al-Shehri, who has been favored so far by Mancini, and repaid the faith with four goals in two World Cup qualifiers. 

There are other in-form stars such as Saud Abdulhamid, Mohamed Kanno and Abdulrahman Ghareeb who have also settled well in the new era of the Saudi Pro League. Not just that, but the boss has called up some exciting young talents. Teenage midfielder Abbas Al-Hassan and 20-year-old forward Abdullah Radif could make continental reputations for themselves.

That would be welcome, but the main objective is, of course, winning the 24-nation tournament for the first time since 1996. That came at a time when Saudi Arabia dominated in the Asian Cup — in the seven tournaments from 1984 to 2007, the Green Falcons made six finals, winning three. In the last three editions however, the team have not made it past the last 16, not good enough for one of Asia’s elite nations.

Not only is the national team a powerhouse, but the league is going from strength to strength. With Mancini in charge, there is no reason why Saudi Arabia cannot go far at the 2023 Asian Cup.

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