After a number of players followed in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo and swapped Europe for Saudi Arabia this year, it left many football fans pondering whether we could see Saudi Pro League clubs join the Champions League in future.
Flexing their financial muscle to land players like Karim Benzema, Neymar and Ruben Neves on mega salaries, Saudi transfer business dominated the headlines over the summer and the league is expected to grow exponentially.
However, could it really get to a stage where Middle Eastern clubs compete in Europe’s premier competition against the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City?
Let’s take a look at what would need to happen for such a scenario to become a reality.
Can Teams Outside Europe Play in the Champions League?
As it stands, no teams from outside of Europe can play in the Champions League. Quite simply, the Union of European Football Associations, known around the world as UEFA, is one of six continental bodies of governance in association football and so only nations from Europe can play in their premier club competition.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin also confirmed this amid speculation in August and said: “Only European clubs can participate in the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League.”
UEFA membership is for sovereign countries in Europe. The governing body is the umbrella organisation for all 55 national association members.
The main UEFA objective is to promote, protect and develop the game across the continent and clubs from the member associations are eligible to compete in the governing body’s tournaments.
UEFA governs football across Europe including the transcontinental countries of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey as well as Armenia, Cyprus and Israel.
As Saudi Arabia is not in Europe and not one of the 55 national association members, it does not qualify for UEFA membership.
Could Saudi Pro League Teams Play in the Champions League?
Put simply, Saudi Pro League teams cannot play in the Champions League. UEFA’s premier competition is exclusively for club’s competing in the 55 member association leagues and so team’s from other continents cannot feature in the tournament.
UEFA are expanding the current format of the competition for the 2024-25 campaign but IT will still only be open for clubs competing in European leagues. The new layout will see one singular league, doing away with the classic group stage, which will see four extra clubs introduced taking the current total of 32 teams up to 36.
However, while UEFA are not entertaining the idea of Middle East clubs playing in the Champions League, Saudi Pro League chief operating officer Carlo Nohra is not dismissing the idea and insists it remains a possibility.
While insisting the Saudi Pro League remains ‘completely committed’ to the AFC Champions League, Nohra told Bloomberg: “We are trying to be different. So any change or improvement that can be introduced to the league we will welcome.”
Could Saudi Arabia Join UEFA?
There is currently no possibility of Saudi Arabia joining UEFA after the governing body’s president Aleksander Ceferin dismissed the suggestion. Only clubs in Europe can be part of UEFA and only clubs in Europe can compete in its competitions including the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League.
Saudi Arabia is currently part of the Asian Football Confederation. Saudi Pro League clubs compete in the AFC Champions League together with teams from nations including South Korea, Japan and China.
The AFC is the football governing body of Asia and has 47 members. These member associations are split into five regions. Saudi Arabia is one of 12 nations featured in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) along with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudi Arabia national team was founded in 1956 and became a FIFA affiliate in the same year. The Saudi team then became affiliated with the AFC in 1972.
Will Champions League Invite Non-UEFA Teams?
UEFA will not invite teams outside of Europe to play in the Champions League after European Club Association chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi dismissed the notion.
Despite the tournament’s upcoming revamp and Saudi’s huge spending power and plans for growth, UEFA’s premier competition is a closed shop to clubs competing outside of Europe.
Khelaifi, who is also the president of Paris Saint-Germain, the French giants still attempting to lift the famous trophy for the first time, insisted no move is planned.
“Today we are trying to let more European clubs participate in European competition,” he said as reported by The Guardian. “The smaller and medium clubs want that. I don’t see there are other clubs coming from outside to Europe. I don’t know what is going to happen in a few years but today I don’t see that anyone from outside will play here.
Few organisations would bend the rules and risk damaging the authenticity of their product by allowing such a major change to take place.
One similar such move that has proved a success is in the music industry with the Eurovision Song Contest welcoming Australia to participate since 2015. There is no such move on the horizon in the Champions League and football, however.
Is Saudi Pro League a Champions League Rival?
The Saudi Pro League can not yet match the Champions League in terms of quality, revenue or viewers and so it can not be considered a rival to Europe’s premier competition.
While the Middle Eastern league can certainly match and even eclipse Europe’s top clubs when it comes to spending power, the Champions League has been established for three decades and started out as the European Cup back in 1955. It has 70 years of history and tradition whereas the Saudi league was formed later, in 1976 and existed only as a round-robin tournament until 1989.
In terms of broadcast figures, it was expected that the Champions League final in June would be watched by 450 million people worldwide.
The live, minute-by-minute audience for Manchester City’s triumph over Inter, would hit 150 million people with the showpiece being shown in more than 200 territories, according to UEFA.
Meanwhile, football in Saudi has only really come into the global consciousness since Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in January 2023. Of course, even more noise was made as a plethora of big-names swapped Europe for the Middle East and their teams do compete in the AFC Champions League but it remains to be seen just how many people will tune in to the domestic game in Saudi.
The Pro League has sold broadcast rights for coverage of the 2023/24 season to 12 networks across 130 countries though so it will be interesting to see the overall viewing figures come the end of the campaign and just how many people have taken a genuine interest beyond the glitz and glamour of the transfers and eye-watering fees.
In terms of people attending live matches at the stadium, the average attendance for Champions League games last season was 49,458. The average attendance at Saudi Pro League games was 9,339 – that’s less than Bradford, Notts County and Ryan Reynolds’ Wrexham record in the fourth tier of English football. In that regard, the Saudi game has a lot of room to grow and it could take decades to reach the level the Champions League and Premier League is at now.
Of course, if Saudi Arabia continues to sign top talent and entice the best players in the world to join its Pro League, more and more people will take an interest. However, as it stands, the Champions League remains one of the biggest and best sporting competitions on the planet.
Will Saudi Pro League Join Champions League?
Saudi Pro League teams could only join the Champions League if they became UEFA members or, alternatively, they were invited to take part in the tournament as ‘guests’ by European football’s governing body. As it stands, that is not going to happen, as confirmed by UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin.
While talk of a European Super League was met with fan disapproval to the extent clubs pulled out of being involved in proposed plans back in 2021, the idea could come around again as the sport continues to evolve. If it does, a Super League formation would likely be Saudi’s best opportunity to get involved, compete with Europe’s best and take a slice of the pie when it comes to revenue from playing in such a prestigious competition.
However, as things stand, UEFA will be keen to protect the integrity of their competitions and so, as has been confirmed, Saudi Pro League clubs will not be joining the Champions League anytime soon, if ever in fact.
The Saudi Pro League will become more attractive to those pushing for new competitions and football fans alike if they continue to sign the best players on the planet. While their bid to host a World Cup in the 2030s is currently on hold, signing players to boost the brand in the hope of landing the iconic global tournament will be at the top of the nation’s agenda.