There has been so much change within Saudi football in the past 12 months that it can be hard to keep up with the developments that are helping shape a new era for football in the country and the wider region.
Whether it is the plethora of global mega stars arriving in the Kingdom, both on the pitch and in the dugouts, through to ambitions to bring the World Cup to Saudi Arabia in just over a decade’s time, each has been part of the seismic shift that has garnered worldwide attention.
Quietly, however, one change has begun to take shape that could change the very face of the Saudi Pro League, the first example of which we saw in the Al-Sahafa district of Riyadh late last month.
For as fast as Saudi football has grown up in the past 12 months, one area that has consistently been flagged as an area for improvement, including by Cristiano Ronaldo himself, is infrastructure development.
“The league is very good,” Ronaldo said at the end of his first season.
“But I think we have many, many opportunities to still grow. The league is competitive. We have very good teams, very good Arab players, but they need to improve a little bit more the infrastructure.”
While there are exceptions to the rule, the vast majority of stadiums used in the SPL are relics of the past, designed for a different time and a different purpose. For as good as the atmosphere generated by Saudi fans can be, when there is a giant athletics track in the way, the energy of the crowd easily gets lost in the void.
Coupled with aging training facilities around the country, it was readily apparent to all that a major infrastructure overhaul was needed to bring Saudi Arabia in line with modern standards.
But all that is now changing, and Al-Shabab were first cab off the rank when they opened their new purpose-built stadium last week in front of a raucous sold-out crowd of 11,974.
The intimate confines of the new stadium, built on the site of their former training pitch, make for a more intimidating environment, especially when it is full as it was for the opening match, a 2-0 win against Al-Tai.
While the world is seduced by scenes of almost 60,000 attending the King Fahd Stadium to witness Al-Hilal take on Al-Ahli, or a jam-packed King Abdullah Sports City for the Jeddah Derby, just as important, perhaps even more so, is replicating those scenes across the country in games and at stadiums not involving the country’s big four clubs.
It is why the scenes from Al-Shabab Club Stadium, with incredible tifos and an atmosphere to match, will hearten those tasked with charting a new path forward for Saudi football. As the profile of the league grows, interest will naturally stretch beyond the big four clubs and it is there where work still needs to be done, with almost half the league playing a home game this season in front of fewer than 1,000 fans. That is sub-par in anyone’s language.
As witnessed when almost 12,000 turned Al-Shabab’s new stadium into a cauldron, the fans are there; it is enticing them to attend on a weekly basis that is the challenge. Providing an atmosphere and experience as intoxicating as that witnessed on the opening night will go a long way to bringing them back again and again.
The sight of cavernous stadiums with only a smattering of fans will do little to help the league’s reputation globally, but the sight of intimate boutique stadiums packed to the rafters will do it no harm at all.
The good news is, after Al-Shabab, there are even more on the way.
Both Ettifaq and Al-Fateh will open their similarly designed boutique stadiums in the coming weeks, which can only add to the growing appeal of the league around the world, especially with so much attention on Steven Gerard’s side. Expect similar scenes to those we saw at Al-Shabab recently as fans flock to sample the atmosphere and experience of their new homes.
It is not just stadiums being developed, either (and with the Asian Cup in 2027 on the horizon, there are many more in the works). At the behest of their star man, Al-Nassr also completely redeveloped their training ground, offering something far more akin to what you would find in Europe. So, too, did Al-Hilal, and you can expect more to follow.
While they might appear to be material changes, as the league continues to attract some of world football’s biggest names, they arrive expecting a certain standard and increasingly that is now one that Saudi Arabia is able to meet.
As the saying goes, Rome was not built in a day. And so it is for the revolution in Saudi football. But bit by bit, brick by brick, it is changing in front of our very eyes.