THE Director of Football of the Saudi Arabia Pro League Mike Emenalo is confident the new haven of big players from across the world will continue to wax stronger.
The former Nigeria international, who was also a director at Chelsea and Monaco, has also allayed concerns that the rise of the Saudis could adversely affect the English Premier League and European leagues in general.
Before the Saudi league’s sudden rise, which was kicked off with the reported $200 million deal for Cristiano Ronaldo in January, China had a similar impact in the 2010s that did not last long.
Emenalo is sure the Saudi Pro League will not go in the same direction as the short-lived Chinese ‘revolution’.
“Not only will it last longer (than Chinese League), but I believe it will be there to stay and it will continue to grow. If anyone has paid any attention to Saudi football, it will know that its population are very passionate about the game,” Emenalo told Sky Sports.
“This is a well put-out plan that has been in existence for a very long time and there is a simple fact that the effort made in this window shows there will be easy interest in the best footballers joining the league.
“We are not just bringing players in to pay them so that they can run around and be famous for a few days. There is an embedded plan to improve the infrastructure and develop the academies, recreational football. There is a bigger strategy to that. It is not just acquisition for players, that’s why I believe the league is here to stay for a very long time.”
Apart from five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo, other superstars like Karim Benzema, Neymar, N’Golo Kante and Sadio Mane have joined Saudi clubs this summer, as the oil-rich country splashed around £700m in transfer fees.
“We are hoping that we have made positive headlines. We look back with great satisfaction that we have put the league in a better place than it was previously,” Emenalo, who played at left-back in Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup squad in 1994, added.
“We have been able to attract and embed some of the best players in the world. We have got now, as part of the league, very good players.
“We have top players, then a healthy sprinkle of world-class players. That bodes well for the future of the league. We are also happy that the transfer window has come to an end so we can focus on something else and move forward.”
When he was asked how difficult it was to get the big players to join the league, Emenalo replied: “It was always the strategy to open up the league to some of the best performers. Anyone who has followed the Saudi Pro League, which seems like a remote league but it’s not – it has been around for a while – will understand its fans are very passionate and that 80 per cent of the population of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are football lovers.
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that when you put your plan in place you ask: how do you offer the best quality entertainment to our audience? That included bringing in the best quality players in the world.
“Was it difficult? It wasn’t difficult, but it was a process of not knowing, when the plan and strategy of presenting it to these players, how it would come across. Fortunately, the players have looked at the plan, strategy and ambition and they expressed values of wanting to make this league one of the best in the world. They decided to join and we are grateful for that.”
There have been rumours that Saudi Arabian clubs could play in the UEFA Champions League in the future, but Emenalo firmly dismissed such speculation.
“No. That is a very far-fetched dream that none of us have contemplated. At least, I have not been part of any conversation at any level that has suggested anything of such. We’re happy with where we are,” he said
“We believe football belongs to everybody and that top-level football belongs to everyone, as with the case with the World Cup in Qatar. There were doubts and concerns and it ended up being one of the very best World Cups of all time.
“We don’t feel that we need the validation of the Champions League to be one of the top leagues in the world. Football doesn’t need the validation of the Champions League to be considered interesting and wonderful. I played it on the concrete grounds of Nigeria in my local state and I came out to play in front of 20,000 people who watched training sessions alone.”
Emenalo admitted that Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr had a big impact in convincing the other superstars to move to Saudi Arabia.
“Absolutely. Given his pedigree, it didn’t hurt that he had the balls to do this. All these guys know each other, especially at the top of the tree.
“And there were big conversations of: ‘Wow, I can’t believe you did this.’
‘Well, I did this and it’s big and it’s magnificent.’
“So, definitely Ronaldo takes some credit of having unlocked a lot of interest in some of his colleagues, yes.”
However, he insisted that some of the staggering wages reported in the media were exaggerated and wide of the mark.
He said: “The reports are largely inaccurate. There is an oceanic difference to what is being reported and what the facts are. Are there players who have been superbly remunerated? Of course. But I remember the days of the Barcelona Dream Team and the Galacticos at Real Madrid.
“When those numbers came out, everybody flinched. When Ronaldo was sold for £80m from Manchester United to Real Madrid, everybody thought it was insane and thought football had gone crazy.
“I can also refer you to other sports in the world, like in baseball, and I invite you to look at some of the numbers and contracts that have been drawn out for individuals.
“This is business. The people who have shouted from the rooftops that football needed to be first professionalised then turned into a lucrative business are now complaining that, like any business, the numbers are starting to sound a bit astronomical.
“It is true that the economic numbers are great, but there is a lack of truth in the numbers being put out there.”
When Emenalo was asked if other leagues should be worried about what is happening in Saudi Arabia, he said: “They shouldn’t be concerned! There is no need to be worried! We are just a part of what we consider to be one of the best sporting organisations in the world, which is FIFA, UEFA and the other federations.
“What we are trying to do is contribute to the development of football globally, we are not here to prove anything except offer quality entertainment to the youth and population of Saudi Arabia. And hopefully, in doing so, attract looks and interest from around the world. If we succeed in doing that, it hopefully enhances the sport globally and the business of football worldwide.
“That is all we are trying to do and it shouldn’t worry anybody. There is no reason for concern. We are looking forward to collaborating with other major influences in the industry, to work together with them and to continue to grow the game.”