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Saudi Pro League will ‘spend significantly’ on stars in their prime

Erling Haaland - Saudi Pro League wants football stars in their prime in next phase

Saudi Arabia aims to be a “league for exceptional players” that attracts superstars in their prime.

Michael Emenalo, the Saudi Pro League’s chief football executive, said that the ambition was to create an “absolute top product” where the likes of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe want to play.

In a wide-ranging interview with Telegraph Sport, Emenalo added that Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne – who are coming towards the end of their careers – are the “types of players” that the SPL will try to sign.

Emenalo claimed the SPL:

  • Aims to be “the top league in the world”

  • Recognises the attraction of a “brand” like Jose Mourinho

  • Is looking at the kind of deals it can offer – beyond money – after missing out on Lionel Messi

  • Wants to develop its own players and sell them to other leagues

  • Will “privatise” all 18 SPL clubs

“It’s a special product, it’s a special arena to be part of and you have to be quite exceptional to be part of it,” Emenalo said. “So, the players that are recruited hopefully would have been properly vetted to feel a sense of exceptionalism.”

That includes, he said, making offers for superstars whose best years are still ahead of them having already tried to sign Mbappe. Al-Hilal made a world-record bid of £260 million last year which was accepted by Paris St-Germain but rejected by the forward who decided to run down his contract and will leave for free to Real Madrid.

Kylian Mbappe poses with the French Cup
Saudi clubs have already bid for Kylian Mbappe and will continue to compete for players of his calibre - Getty Images/Franck Fife

“Now whenever an opportunity comes up and one of those kinds of players that you mentioned are available we will compete for them,” Emenalo said.

“This particular coming window…if there’s an opportunity to spend significantly on someone that we think will bring exactly what we needed or what is needed, then we will do that.”

So far, the big names the SPL has brought in have been those – such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Neymar – coming towards the end of their career.

Salah, who was the subject of a failed £150 million bid from Al-Ittihad last year, has one more year on his contract at Liverpool, who expect the 31-year-old to stay. De Bruyne, 32, has the same period remaining on his deal at Manchester City but may be harder to persuade to join the SPL.

There is a sense that it may be easier to sign both players next year, when they are out of contract. When asked directly about the pair, Emenalo stressed he did not want to talk about individuals out of “absolute respect” for “organisations that we work with, that we compete with” explaining it was “part of the integrity code that this league and this nation wants to carry into this whole process”.

Strong interest in Alisson and Ederson

However, tellingly, Emenalo added: “It does help that on a public level, their performance is there, their quality is indisputable… All things being equal, which means their clubs, the players, management, our situation, our stakeholders and everybody, these are the type of players that can significantly improve what we’re trying to do. There’s no hiding away from that.”

Telegraph Sport revealed that bids are expected for the Manchester United pair Casemiro – who is likely to go – and Bruno Fernandes and there is strong interest in Liverpool’s Alisson and City’s Ederson.

There is an expectation that a fresh attempt will be made to bring Mourinho into the SPL next season as a head coach with Al-Qadsiah, local rivals to Steven Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq, being promoted into the SPL and wanting to fly him over.

Emenalo said he had no “direct information” about a deal but added: “Jose is a brand in his own…Whether he’s ready to come or whether a club in our league is ready for him is something that needs to be determined.”

Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho could be a managerial target for SPL clubs this summer - Getty Images/Simone Arveda

Having spent £767 million signing 94 overseas players last summer, Emenalo expects far fewer deals to be done in the forthcoming window, saying it would be more “professional” this summer. “The clubs are going to be asked to focus on building a quality product on the pitch, he explained. “We want to bring in players to enhance the league but we also want to develop our own players.”

The SPL missed out on Messi, having believed it had a deal in place for him before he moved to the United States and joined Inter Miami instead, and Emenalo said the Saudis will have to consider offering incentives beyond high salaries. Messi was offered a stake in the club in the MLS.

“I don’t know what the reasons were, because I wasn’t here then, for Lionel Messi not to join, but I am sure… [when] you see all of the things that are happening in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, you will understand that if they absolutely want to do something it would be possible to do it.

“The only thing I can say is that I can assure you that we’re looking at different ideas, creative ways, to make sure that the league continues to progress.”

Currently four of the clubs are owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund – with most of the others funded by the Ministry of Sport – and Emenalo said there are plans for the “eventual privatisation of the rest of the clubs in the league”.

The SPL’s stated ambition is to be a top-10 league but Emenalo hinted they intend to eventually take this much further.

“When you accept these type of projects with the associated ambition the goal is to be the best you can possibly be,” he said. “Right now our goal is to be one of the top leagues in the world.

“Being No 1 is something that would be left to people in the future, whether that happens in 10 years, in 20 years, in 25 years, that would be welcome. But I think the place to start is to say we want to be the top league in the world.”


Read Telegraph Sport’s behind-the-scenes report on the Saudi plan to dominate world football this afternoon

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