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Jordan Gardner | How the Saudi Pro League can become one of the best in the world in five years

As Saudi Arabia pours hundreds of millions of dollars into soccer, American sports executive and former FC Helsingor chairman Jordan Gardner explains why the country's top flight will need to do more than buy ageing stars to become a serious player on the global stage.

30 June 2023 Jordan Gardner

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One of the more fascinating trends in global soccer in recent years has been the influx of investment coming out of Saudi Arabia.

Whether it be the Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) takeover of Premier League side Newcastle United, bringing some of the world’s best players to its domestic league, or the PIF’s recent acquisition of four top-flight Saudi clubs, we’re seeing a sophisticated and targeted strategy of investment in soccer by the Middle East state.

Early returns have been very positive. The Saudi ownership at Newcastle has been a resounding success, with the club qualifying for the 2023/24 Uefa Champions League, and the response to Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to the Saudi Pro League in the winter transfer window has been well received.

Saudi Arabia is a soccer mad country with immense potential to be a serious player on the global stage. At the most recent Fifa World Cup in Qatar, the country defeated eventual winners Argentina in one of the shock results of the tournament.

Looking more specifically at the domestic league, Ronaldo has been quoted in the media stating that Saudi Arabia’s Pro League could become one of the best in the world in the next five years. But what steps does the league need to take to make this a realistic goal? And does the current strategy of buying ageing stars need to be adjusted in the future for the league to be a serious global player?

Investment in infrastructure

In order for the Saudi Pro League to be considered one of the best in the world, there will need to be proper investment in infrastructure. Fortunately for Saudi soccer, commitments have already been made in advance of hosting the 2027 Asian Cup, with ten new stadium construction and renovation plans being announced.

However, club infrastructure is more than just new stadiums. There will need to be proper investments in training facilities, academies, player performance infrastructure and more. Some of the smaller clubs outside of Riyadh and Jeddah have quite poor stadiums and ageing infrastructure, which will need to be addressed. 

There’s no reason the Saudi Pro League can’t have best-in-class academies and youth development infrastructure that draws some of the top talent from across the Middle East and North Africa. A league is only as strong as its weakest clubs, and for the Saudi Pro League to compete on a global stage, there will need to be proper investment in long-term facilities and infrastructure to match the investments being made on the pitch.

Strategic growth in human capital

I’m a firm believer in the value of people and human capital in soccer. With such an ambitious project, those leading Saudi soccer will need to bring in the right people to lead both the league and grow the individual clubs.

Traditional soccer executives from some of the top clubs in Europe may not be the best suited to deal with a unique and challenging environment that is still very much in startup mode. The league will need to target people who are dynamic, entrepreneurial and willing to get their hands dirty in a quickly changing environment.

On the sporting side, the league will need to find the right mix of top global soccer minds (coaches and sporting directors) and people with a local understanding of the soccer culture in the Middle East. Building a proper soccer club also requires bringing in top minds in areas that are less glamorous, including physios, mental coaches and data analysts.

If Saudi Arabia realistically wants to challenge some of the top global competitions, there will need to be a comprehensive focus from top to bottom across the league and clubs on bringing in the right people to execute a long-term strategic vision.

Transition away from ageing superstars

One of the more interesting developments of this summer transfer window so far has been the signing of 26-year-old Wolves midfielder Rúben Neves by Al Hilal. While the majority of the players moving to Saudi this summer have been at the backend of their careers, Neves is in his prime and a starter for the Portuguese national team. As the Saudi Pro League matures, the profile of marquee players must evolve to be younger and more in line with some of the top leagues in Europe.

A good case study would be Major League Soccer’s (MLS) transition over the last five years from a league of ageing stars to a hotbed of young talent – both domestic and from South America. No league can consider itself world class if it exclusively focuses recruitment on older players at the end of their careers. While the strategy is sound if the goal is to build interest in the league and raise the quality of soccer in the short term, in the medium to long run administrators in Saudi will need to pivot to a more sustainable recruitment philosophy. 

It’s too early to tell how much of a serious global player Saudi soccer will be in the coming years. However, the early signs indicate a strong appetite for investment in the sport, and a sustained interest in making the Saudi Pro League one of the top leagues in the world.

With proper investment in infrastructure, a savvy focus on human capital and a long-term, sustainable recruitment strategy, there’s no doubt this league can be a serious global player for years to come.

About the author: Jordan is an American sports executive, investor and operator with on-the-ground experience in European soccer. He is a minority shareholder in Swansea City, former board member of Irish club Dundalk FC, and former managing partner and chairman for Danish club FC Helsingør. Jordan is also a consultant for Twenty First Group in their Commercial Specialist Group.

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