In Saudi Arabia, African footballers seek a new career

The spectacular offensive of Saudi clubs in Europe during the summer transfer window made it possible to attract very high level African players to this championship, of which the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo was until now the main attraction

In Saudi Arabia, African footballers seek a new career

The spectacular offensive of Saudi clubs in Europe during the summer transfer window made it possible to attract very high level African players to this championship, of which the Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo was until now the main attraction. These include Senegalese Sadio Mané (31, Al-Nassr) and Kalidou Koulibaly (32, Al-Hilal), Algerian Riyad Mahrez (32, Al-Ahli), Moroccan Yassine Bounou (32 years old, Al-Hilal) or the Ivorian Franck Kessié (26 years old, Al-Ahli), poached respectively from Bayern Munich, Naples, Manchester City, Sevilla FC and FC Barcelona. Their motivation is obvious: they benefit from salaries that they would never have received in Europe.

While a third of the championship has been contested, the results of African players are largely positive, since eleven of them are among the twenty top scorers. Sadio Mané scored six goals, one more than Riyad Mahrez. Other lesser-known players, such as the Zambian Fashion Sakala (Al-Feiha) or the Cameroonian Georges-Kévin N’Koudou (Damac), have also successfully integrated into one of the now most observed leagues in the world.

Pioneer, Marcel Tisserand, the international defender from the Democratic Republic of Congo, joined the Saudi championship in 2022, signing with Al-Ettifaq, one of the five richest clubs in the country. However, he did not expect such an influx of foreign players, including twenty-eight Africans, during the last summer transfer window.

" I was surprised. After Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr in January, I thought there would be arrivals, but not as many! I didn't imagine that Sadio Mané, Neymar, Jordan Henderson or Karim Benzema would come to play in Saudi Arabia this summer. Some clubs – Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ettifaq, Al-Ahli – benefited more from government help to recruit stars and offer them very high salaries,” notes the former player. Monaco, Wolfsburg and Fenerbahce Istanbul.

Pulling the Saudi championship up

The massive arrival of these footballers, most of whom had recently played in the best European championships, has contributed to raising the level in the Saudi kingdom. “Sadio Mané, Ryad Mahrez, Kalidou Koulibaly or Franck Kessié, to name a few, still had the level to play at the highest level and compete in the Champions League. They arrived in great shape, motivated, and they are among those who are pulling the Saudi championship to the top,” continues Marcel Tisserand. The Saudi championship was already considered one of the best in Asia, along with those of Japan and South Korea, before the expensive operation to seduce local clubs.

French coach Denis Lavagne, now at the head of Al-Jabalain, a league 2 club, was able to measure the impact of these players from Europe during the Saudi Pro League matches that he follows at home. television, but also during the recent lost Cup clash between his team and Al-Hilal.

“Yassine Bounou and Kalidou Kouylibaly played and they were at their best, very motivated. When I watch Sadio Mané with Al-Nassr, I don't have the impression of seeing someone who came to take it easy and take his money without making a lot of effort evolve,” explains the former Cameroon coach. “Contrary to what people may think, Saudi Arabia is a real football country,” he continues. There are people in the stadiums which are often modern, the press is present. The players have good working conditions and the Saudis expect them to perform well. »

The level of requirements has in fact gone up a notch since the massive recruitment policy decreed by the country's authorities. “Yes, the salaries are very interesting, but it would be a mistake to believe that football in Saudi Arabia is easy money,” underlines Tunisian international Naïm Sliti, who played for four years at Al-Ettifaq before join Al-Arabi (Qatar) in July. If a foreign player gives the impression of being on vacation, he will quickly be sidelined by his Saudi teammates and the club will not keep him. » The considerable sums spent, whether on recruitment, salaries, bonuses and benefits in kind, do not go without compensation.

“Very concerned footballers”

Denis Lavagne, who had already coached the Najran club in 2014, is also convinced: “Star or not star, if a player doesn't make the effort, they will start by not making him play anymore and, if he doesn't understand, they will separate from it. They have the means. »

An analysis shared by Marcel Tisserand, who challenges prejudices about the Saudi Pro League: “That the Saudi championship is not at the same level as those of England, Germany, France or Spain, it is obvious . But when I hear about a golden closet, I don't agree. The players are motivated and when I watch the matches of Mané, Mahrez or others, I see very concerned footballers. Moreover, they have all kept their place in their national teams since their arrival in the Gulf! »

The performance of the vast majority of African players to have been recruited during the summer by Saudi clubs already indicates that they have quickly adapted to their new living environment. But Saudi Arabia can also be a denominational choice for some Muslim players.

Thus, French striker Karim Benzema explained, after leaving Real Madrid for Al-Ittihad – and a monthly salary of 16.7 million euros – that as “a Muslim, it is important to live in a Muslim country.” Former Moroccan international Abdeslam Ouaddou, who finished his career in Qatar in 2012, is not surprised by the explanations for the 2022 Ballon d'Or: “Choosing a Gulf country like Saudi Arabia is the possibility to earn a very good living, to play in a good championship and to be able to combine high-level sport and the practice of one's religion, particularly during the Ramadan period. » At this period, the Saudi Pro League is in fact suspended.