New era of Saudi Pro League: Exploring the anticipated RSL 2023/24 season

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The 2023/24 Saudi Pro League, kicking off on Friday, is poised to mark a significant chapter in Saudi Arabia’s football history. With an unprecedented influx of star players having joined the league this summer, the season promises to be one of the most enthralling football campaigns the Kingdom has witnessed.

Here is a look at the upcoming star-studded campaign:

Unveiling the Saudi Pro League

The Saudi Pro League, officially recognized as the Roshn Saudi League (RSL) due to its sponsorship affiliations, is the premier tier of association football within the Kingdom.

The first season of competition dates back to the 1976/77 season.

Comprising a total of 18 clubs this season, the RSL has allocated room for each participating team to register up to eight non-Saudi players, diversifying the league with international talent.

During the course of a season, which traditionally unfolds from August to May, each club faces off against the others twice – once on their home turf and once at their opponents’ venue. This amounts to a total of 34 matches for each club.

Teams are ranked on the league table based on points, followed by the head-to-head record among tied teams, and then goal difference.

A system of promotion and relegation exists between the RSL and the Saudi First Division League. The three lowest-placed teams (16th, 17th and 18th) in the RSL are relegated to the First Division and the top three teams from the First Division are promoted to the RSL.

Most successful clubs

Al Hilal of the capital Riyadh holds the record for the most successful team in the league, securing 18 titles in its history, most recently winning the title in 2021/22.

Jeddah’s pride, Al Ittihad, clinched the title last season and has claimed the league championship nine times in total. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Riyadh-based Al Nassr also boasts nine titles, with its most recent victory occurring during the 2018/19 season.

Fans watch the welcome ceremony for Karim Benzema after joining Al Ittihad - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (File photo)
Fans watch the welcome ceremony for Karim Benzema after joining Al Ittihad - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (File photo)

Al Shabab, another Riyadh-based club, boasts six league victories, while Al Ahli from Jeddah has secured the title three times. Al Ettifaq of Dammam and Al Fateh from Al Hasa have each claimed the championship twice and once, respectively.

Overall, teams from Riyadh have collectively dominated the league, amassing 33 title victories that spotlight the capital city’s footballing prowess.

What makes this season unique?

The RSL has garnered significant investment this summer, attracting renowned names in the sport such as Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, and Riyad Mahrez, among others.

In June, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project. This initiative saw the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, acquiring a 75 percent stake in the Kingdom’s top four most popular clubs: Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, and Al Ahli.

Sports play a crucial role in the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan that seeks to build new industries and create jobs.

The privatization project, focusing primarily on football clubs, permits companies and development agencies to invest in and take over clubs.

The project envisions a rise in the Saudi league’s annual revenue to 1.8 billion riyals ($480 million) by 2030 from its current 450 million riyals. Saudi Arabia also anticipates the league’s market value to surge to more than 8 billion riyals from the current 3 billion riyals during the same period.

Stars

Since Ronaldo joined Al Nassr from Manchester United last December, several other world class players from Europe’s top leagues have followed suit.

Karim Benzema: The Frenchman, who for years partnered with Ronaldo up front for Real Madrid, joined Al Ittihad in June after 14 seasons with Los Blancos.

Benzema, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2022 after an unforgettable Champions League campaign with Real Madrid, left the Spanish side having won five Champions League titles and four La Liga titles.

Karim Benzema. (Reuters)
Karim Benzema. (Reuters)

The 35-year-old, widely regarded as one of the best strikers of his generation, joined Real Madrid in 2009 from Ligue 1 side Lyon. He made 648 appearances for the Spanish club and is second on its all-time goalscoring list with 354 goals.

N’golo Kante: The French World Cup-winning midfielder joined his compatriot Benzema at Al Ittihad in June, coming from Chelsea.

A dynamic and industrious midfielder, Kante won the World Cup with France in 2018. He is regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation.

N’golo Kante. (File photo)
N’golo Kante. (File photo)

The 32-year-old won the Champions League and World Club Cup with Chelsea, as well as back-to-back Premier League titles with Leicester City and Chelsea.

With the addition of both Kante and Benzema, Al Ittihad’s midfield and attack have been significantly bolstered, increasing the club’s chances of retaining the title.

Riyad Mahrez: The Algerian winger joined Al Ahli from Manchester City in July.

The 32-year-old came to Jeddah after a very successful season with Manchester City during which he won the treble: the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.

Riyad Mahrez. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)
Riyad Mahrez. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)

Mahrez joined Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in 2018 from Leicester City, winning 11 major trophies at the club.

Sadio Mane: The Senegalese forward joined Ronaldo’s Al Nassr earlier this month from Bayern Munich.

The twice African footballer of the year won the Bundesliga with Bayern, and the Premier League and the Champions League with Liverpool, where he was a key part of Jurgen Klopp’s devastating front three with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino.

Sadio Mane. (X/@AlNassrFC_EN)
Sadio Mane. (X/@AlNassrFC_EN)

The 31-year-old also won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal in 2022.

Roberto Firmino: The Brazilian forward joined Al Ahli last month from Liverpool.

The 31-year-old left after eight seasons at Anfield, during which time he scored 111 goals in 362 appearances and won the Premier League, Champions League and Club World Cup.

Roberto Firmino. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)
Roberto Firmino. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)

With both Firmino and Mahrez in attack, Al Ahli’s supporters will have high expectations for their team’s offensive prowess.

Kalidou Koulibaly: The Senegal captain joined Al Hilal from Chelsea in June following a season at the London club that fell short of expectations.

However, this single underwhelming season fails to encapsulate Koulibaly’s genuine capabilities. Prior to his 2022 stint with Chelsea, Koulibaly spent a remarkable eight years at Napoli. Throughout his tenure in Italy, he evolved into one of the best center-backs in the world.

Al Hilal’s Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly runs with the ball during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup group B football match between Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal at the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on July 27, 2023. (AFP)
Al Hilal’s Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly runs with the ball during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup group B football match between Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal at the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on July 27, 2023. (AFP)

Koulibaly was named four times in the Serie A team of the year and voted as the best defender in Italy in 2019. In 2022, he led Senegal to winning the Africa Cup of Nations.

Marcelo Brozovic: The Croatian midfielder joined Al Nassr last month from Inter Milan.

Al Nassr’s midfielder Marcelo Brozovic (L) vies for the ball with Al Shorta’s forward Idrissa Niang during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup semi-final football match between Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and Iraq’s Al Shorta at Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on August 9, 2023. (AFP)
Al Nassr’s midfielder Marcelo Brozovic (L) vies for the ball with Al Shorta’s forward Idrissa Niang during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup semi-final football match between Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr and Iraq’s Al Shorta at Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on August 9, 2023. (AFP)

The 30-year-old joined Inter in 2015 and helped them win Serie A in the 2020/21 season followed by two Italian Cup trophies. He was also in the Inter team that lost the Champions League final to Manchester City last season.

Ruben Neves: The Portuguese midfielder left Premier League side Wolves to join Al Hilal in June.

Al Hilal’s Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves reacts during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup group B football match between Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal at the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on July 27, 2023. (AFP)
Al Hilal’s Portuguese midfielder Ruben Neves reacts during the 2023 Arab Club Champions Cup group B football match between Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal at the Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Abha on July 27, 2023. (AFP)

The 26-year-old made 253 appearances for Wolves, scoring 30 goals, since arriving in 2017.

Edouard Mendy: The Senegal goalkeeper joined Al Ahli in June from Chelsea.

Edouard Mendy. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)
Edouard Mendy. (X/@ALAHLI_FCEN)

Mendy helped Chelsea win the Champions League in 2021. He was also named UEFA’s goalkeeper of the season and FIFA’s best male goalkeeper in 2021.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic: The Serbia midfielder joined Al Hilal last month from Lazio.

Milinkovic-Savic joined Lazio in 2015 and scored 69 goals in 341 appearances for the Rome-based club.

Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. (X/@Alhilal_EN)
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. (X/@Alhilal_EN)

The 28-year-old won the Italian Cup in 2019 and appeared for Serbia at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Jordan Henderson: The English midfielder joined Al Ettifaq last month after 12 years at Liverpool.

The 33-year-old played 492 matches for Liverpool, scoring 33 goals.

Jordan Henderson. (X/@Ettifaq_EN)
Jordan Henderson. (X/@Ettifaq_EN)

Henderson also led the club to their first Premier League title for 30 years in 2020, a year after winning the Champions League.

The England international will be reunited in Saudi Arabia with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, who was recently appointed as Al Ettifaq’s manager.

Allan Saint-Maximin: The French winger joined Al Ahli after leaving English club Newcastle last month.

French winger Allan Saint-Maximin (L). (File photo)
French winger Allan Saint-Maximin (L). (File photo)

The 26-year-old made 124 appearances for Newcastle and scored 13 goals since joining from Nice in 2019.

Alex Telles: The Brazilian left-back left Manchester United for a reunion with former teammate Ronaldo at Al Nassr last month.

Alex Telles (L). (X/@AlNassrFC_EN)
Alex Telles (L). (X/@AlNassrFC_EN)

The 30-year-old spent last season on loan at Sevilla, where he won the Europa League.

Fabinho: The Brazil midfielder joined Al Ittihad last month from Liverpool.

Fabinho (C). (File photo)
Fabinho (C). (File photo)

The 29-year-old joined Liverpool from Monaco in 2018 and made 219 appearances for the Reds, winning the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Club World Cup.

Key upcoming matches

Amidst the influx of new talent into the Saudi league, fans can anticipate riveting clashes in the upcoming season.

Here are some highly anticipated fixtures:

Al Ettifaq vs Al Nassr – August 14: In the inaugural match of the season, Al Ettifaq, led by their new manager Steven Gerrard and bolstered by the addition of Jordan Henderson in midfield, will face off against Ronaldo’s Al Nassr.

Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal. (File photo: Reuters)
Al Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal. (File photo: Reuters)

This match promises to be a major challenge for Gerrard’s team as they contend with Al Nassr’s strengthened squad, including Mane and Brozovic.

Al Nassr vs Al Shabab – August 29: The first Riyadh derby of the season, this match promises an exciting showdown. Keep an eye out for the midfield battle between Al Shabab’s Ever Banega and Al Nassr’s Brozovic.

Al Ittihad vs Al Hilal – September 1: Regarded as the Kingdom’s El Clasico, this clash between the powerhouse teams of Riyadh and Jeddah is the biggest game in Saudi football.

The encounter at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City Stadium on September 1 is expected to draw a capacity crowd. Notable battles to watch will include Benzema versus Koulibaly, and Kante against Milinkovic-Savic and Neves.

Al Ittihad vs Al Ahli – October 7: This Jeddah derby showcases the rivalry between the city’s top-tier clubs.

Benzema’s showdown against Al Ahli’s goalkeeper Mendy and Al Ittihad’s defense grappling with the frightening attacking trio of Saint-Maximin, Firmino, and Mahrez (SFM) adds to the intrigue.

Al Hilal vs Al Ahli – October 26: Another clash between Riyadh and Jeddah, this match presents a challenge for Al Hilal’s defense led by Koulibaly to thwart the SFM trio. Meanwhile, Al Ahli’s midfield will have the difficult task of taking and keeping the ball from Neves and Milinkovic-Savic.

Al Hilal vs Al Nassr – November 30: As Riyadh’s premier teams go head-to-head, this capital derby is bound to deliver.

Featuring the likes of Ronaldo, Mane, Koulibaly, Neves, and Milinkovic-Savic, this derby is set to be an exciting battle.

Al Ittihad vs Al Nassr – December 14-16: The champions facing the runners-up, this match brings together football giants Benzema and Ronaldo. You won’t want to miss this one.

Read more:

Saudi Pro League’s signing with Ronaldo, Benzema is just the beginning: Board member

From Benzema to Kante: The Saudi Pro League’s most high-profile foreign recruits

Saudi Pro League spending spree is no one-off, part of long-term strategy: Official

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