Saudi Pro League director Emenalo wants Mbappe and Kane, says players calling him after seeing opener

Saudi Pro League director of football Michael Emenalo says he got calls from players wanting to join the revamped project after the season’s opening match featured Roberto Firmino and Riyad Mahrez.

Emenalo, Chelsea’s former technical director, was in Jeddah to watch the opening match between Al Ahli, one of Saudi Arabia’s four clubs majority-owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), and Al Hazm, who are not one of the chosen four.

The league’s recruitment was the big story of the summer, with Karim Benzema (Al Ittihad), Ruben Neves (Al Hilal), and Jordan Henderson (Al Ettifaq) all signing up, the latter of whom will play on Monday night against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr in Dammam in the east of the country.

In the opening match, some of the other recent investment was on display, with Roger Ibanez, Riyad Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maximin and Edouard Mendy all making their debuts for the club. It was Firmino who proved most value to Saudi’s desire to become one of the world’s top leagues, though, scoring hat-trick in the heat.

The match was played at 9pm local time but even at that hour, the temperature was over 30C (86F). Together with the pyrotechnics and 24,006 fans singing, it was the kind of show the league wants to put on if it is to live up to the attention it now has.

“We were all hoping and praying that you’d get a good spectacle yesterday,” the league’s chief operating officer, Carlo Nohra, said to the foreign journalists gathered at Jeddah’s Crown Plaza the day after the opening night match.


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With Saudi Arabia’s transfer deadline not closing until September 20, attention now turns to further recruitment. Emenalo says clubs are still “working frantically” to improve their squads, and if more stars are to be recruited it is up to him to smooth away their concerns about not just the weather, but also national team implications and fear of criticism if they do sign up, as Henderson experienced.

Former Liverpool captain Henderson had been a prominent advocate for LGBTQI+ equality in the UK and came under fire for his move, due to the lack of LGBTQI+ and women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has also described Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as “appalling”.

“The biggest concern is narrative,” said Emenalo. “We have to demolish some of these very outrageous narratives out there that there is something wrong with the Saudi league or with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That’s what they worry about.

“But I cannot tell you how many calls or messages I got last night after players stayed up to watch this game because they wanted to see and after they saw it, thinking, ‘You know what, it’s not what I expected and I would love to be part of it.’”

Asked about his Saudi bosses’ desires to bring in stars like Kylian Mbappe, he said: “I would love to have Kylian Mbappe here, I would love to have Harry Kane here, the league would like to have all the top players.” After seeing the starting XI for Al Ahli, perhaps the Premier League is getting worried.

“I don’t think they are scared,” said Emenalo. “The European leagues, especially the Premier League, are very strong, entrenched, they have no reason to be scared. I do feel they consider our presence to be disruptive.”



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(Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

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