The Arab Identity of the Saudi Professional League

Saudi Al Ittihad's players celebrate after scoring against Al-Hilal's team during their Saudi Professional League football match at the King Fahad stadium in the capital of Riyadh, on September 20, 2013. (AFP)

The Saudi Professional League is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this season, a successful 40 years to be exact. Starting in 1976 with 16 teams, the league was quickly shrunk to 8 teams, after the other 8 didn’t make it through the first season. Today, the league is a competitive one, with 14 teams, always alternating at the top spot. Like any other league, there is a discrepancy between the winning teams and the losing ones, as Al-Ahli currently sits at first with 24 points, while Al-Quadisiya is struggling at the bottom with 5.

The biggest accomplishment, other than winning the league, is reaching the top 3, and sometimes, top 4. The best three, and the winner of the King Cup, are qualified to the AFC Asian Champions League, but if the winner of the cup is one of the top three, then it is the range is extended to top four. Finishing first is still a pretty hefty win, as the cash prize adds up to a bit more than $1M.

Similarly to the AGL and MLS, the Saudi Professional League, officially known as the Jameel League, has a quota for foreign players. Each team can have four foreign players, but on the condition that none are goalkeepers. This does give local players a big window, which they have taken advantage of, to outclass the foreign players. Looking at the top scorer table, it is surprising to see how many times it has been won by Saudi players compared to foreign ones.

Arab Players Dominate the Top Scorer Table

The Saudi Professional League is doing a much better job at promoting local talent than the Arabian Gulf league. Looking at both top scorer tables, the difference between local and foreign top scorers is very obvious. Out of the 40 seasons it has been around for, Arab players have been at the top of the Jameel League for 32. As for the AGL, it was created 43 years ago, and only 19 seasons have had an Arab top scorer. The Saudi League is better propped in this case, to promote not only Saudi, but also Arab talent, and get players places they can’t reach from their home countries.

During the first 17 years of the league, all the top scorers were Saudi. After that, in the remaining 23 seasons, the top scorer was Saudi 11 times, Moroccan twice, and the same Syrian has held the title for the past two years.

Another dissimilarity between the Saudi Professional League and the AGL is where the foreign players that make it to the top come from. In the AGL, the past 13 years have been dominated by foreigners, mostly from South America. As for the Saudi League, there has been only one Brazilian, Simões, and one Argentinian, Tagliabué, who featured as top scorers. That is not to say that the quotas are not full, as each of the 14 teams have their four foreign players, and most are from Brazil. That makes the Saudi players more talented than the Emirati ones, since they still shine although there are many foreigners involved.

Players to Remember

There are a few players who have been outstanding over the years, and who have added to the complexity and level of the Saudi game. Nasser Al Shamrani, who also plays for the Saudi National Team, has been the league’s top scorer 5 times, four with Al Shabab, and once with Al-Ahli. He featured for the first time in 2007/08, reaching the top consecutively in 2008/09, then doing it again in 2010/11 and 2011/12. The last time he was top scorer, in 2013/14, he reached his personal best, 21 goals.

The player making all the noise right now, Omar Al Somah, the only player from Syria to ever feature in the Saudi League’s top scorer list, has snatched it twice, and is looking to go for his third consecutive season. He was at the top in 2014/15 and 2015/16, and is currently leading the 2016/17 season with 12 goals, leaving a gap of 5 goals between him and second place. All of his achievements have been with Al-Ahli, starting when he moved in 2014. If he continues in his fine form and is top scorer this season, he will be the first ever to do it three times in a row.

Finally, Godwin Attram, the Ghanian national, is the only non-Arab to be top scorer twice. Not scoring the biggest amount of goals, 15 in 2003 and 13 in 2006, he still was of some use to Al Shabab as he helped them win the league in 2003.

Top Teams and Cities

The team that has dominated the league since its conception is Al-Hilal, winning 13 times, and coming in second another 13 times. In second comes Al-Ittihad, who have won 8 and came second 7 times, and finally Al-Nassr, who have won 7 and been runners-up 5 times.

This is proportional to the cities they are from, as both Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr are teams from Riyadh, and Al-Ittihad is from Jeddah. The cities who host teams who have won the league are Riyadh (population 4M), Jeddah (population 2.8M) and Dammam (population 745000). This shows how cities with a bigger population, and in turn, a bigger fanbase, more crowd support, and team popularity, perform better and more competitively. This is due to the increased moral and income, which in turn allows more money to be spent on stronger and more tactical players.

Although bigger city teams have more local talent to choose from, and more money to select from abroad, the Saudi League is doing its job, as it promotes local and regional talent, and provides a place for advancement for foreign players. This all happens while providing fans with interesting and competitive football, with goals galore making the Saudi Professional League football an avidly watched and spectated sport.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 30 November 2016 KSA 18:56 - GMT 15:56
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