It is fair to assume that the Saudi Pro League probably wasn’t at the forefront of any football fan’s mind last year.
However, that has all changed in the past six months after the arrival of the biggest name to grace the league so far, Cristiano Ronaldo, widely considered to be one of the best players of all time.
Having left Manchester United to join Riyadh-based Al-Nassr in the Saudi league, it was reported that Ronaldo was earning around £180 million per year over the course of his two-and-a-half year contract.
The Portuguese legend also went public with claims that the Saudi Pro League was of a better standard than the likes of America’s Major League Soccer – which of course is where his great rival Lionel Messi now plies his trade with Inter Miami.
But how do these claims stack up? How good is the big-money league and how good could it end up being?
What is the Quality of the Saudi Arabia Football League?
Despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s claims to the contrary, in world football the Saudi Pro League is currently rated as the 58th highest-quality league in the world. His club Al-Nassr is ranked as the 308th best club in the world.
For perspective, that ranking puts the league below the likes of the Scottish Premiership (ranked 49th), and puts Al-Nassar at the level of the likes of Sunderland.
However, these judgements are notoriously difficult to make considering that clubs from different regions of the world rarely play against each other in competitive matches.
Is Saudi Pro League a “Farmer’s League”?
A “farmer’s league” is a derogatory term used to describe a football league supposedly lacking quality and competitiveness, so there is certainly an argument that the Saudi Pro League could be described in such a way.
However, the “farmer’s league” jibe has also been aimed at the likes of Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 – mainly by fans of English Premier League teams – so it should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt.
Saudi Pro League vs MLS
Cristiano Ronaldo’s claim that the Saudi Pro League is better than the MLS was highly controversial and seen as a veiled dig at old rival Lionel Messi after he joined MLS side Inter Miami.
A year ago, the vast majority of football followers would have disagreed with the Portuguese, but with the sudden and continuing influx of some of Europe’s best players into the Saudi league, it might start to be a discussion worth having.
Is Saudi League Better Than MLS?
In simple terms, the Saudi Pro League is not better than the MLS. Where the Saudi clubs are offering blank cheques to top talent from Europe and elsewhere, the MLS has established itself in terms of attendance, grassroots development and stadiums for example.
The MLS is also well ahead in TV viewership at the moment, but of course that could all change given the influx of top talent to the Saudi League and this being the first year when it is being offered to a global market.
While Ronaldo might have been factually incorrect in claiming his new league was better than the MLS, it is not hard to imagine the current gap closing relatively quickly if things keep progressing as they are.
Saudi Pro League vs Premier League
The obvious answer here is that there is currently no comparison between the Saudi Pro League and England’s Premier League. The EPL has been widely regarded as the best league in the world for several years now.
However, that is not to say that even some of the top EPL clubs may be getting a little concerned about Saudi clubs’ apparently bottomless pit of money, and therefore their ability to tempt away even the Premier League’s top stars.
The likes of Karim Benzema have already been lured from Real Madrid, and Ruben Neves has gone from the EPL with Wolves to Saudi Arabia.
Ex-EPL players N’Golo Kanté, Roberto Firmino and Edouard Mendy will all be playing for Saudi clubs this season, and could well be joined by others.
So while there are huge differences in the quality and prestige of the leagues at the moment, there is a possibility that could change in the future.
Saudi Pro League Level
The Saudi Pro League is currently nowhere near comparable to the likes of the English Premier League, or even the English Championship, which is ranked as the 11th best league in the world.
While the EPL is widely rated as the best league in the world, the Saudi Pro League sits in 58th position, well below even England’s League Two (33rd).
Al-Nassr, which brought Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia, is ranked as the 308th best team worldwide.
The worst teams in the league are ranked at around 3,000th in the world, which equates to mid-table English National League sides, and which means the average strength of sides in the Saudi Pro league is on a par with weak League One sides or strong League Two clubs.
Could Saudi Pro League Become the Best League?
Technically, there is no reason why the Saudi Pro League couldn’t become the best in the world, but it will take much investment and improvements if it were ever to achieve it, and not just by splashing cash on top players.
The league has said it wants to be one of the world’s top leagues within the next five years, which given its current status of 58th is a lofty ambition.
However, ten new stadiums are being built in the country prior to the 2027 Asian Cup, and it seems no end of money to make drastic changes if required to the likes of youth academies, scouting young players, infrastructure and even to attract the top talents from around the world to run the game in the state.
And it has a cautionary tale from which to draw advice on how not to go about things in the form of the China.
The Chinese Super League clubs spent huge amounts luring some of the world’s best – albeit usually aging – players to the country, including spending $400 million in the 2016/17 transfer window alone.
With the clubs predominantly owned by property owners and the downturn in the real estate sector, the debts were unsustainable, and a new rule limiting the amount spent on foreign players to $5 million dulled the country’s appetite for top-flight football.
This, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, effectively ended the league’s dream of becoming one of the best in the world, despite the huge amounts of money being invested at one time.