Other | Jul 04, 2023

Beginner's Guide to the Saudi Professional League

By Harry Bazley

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With European superstars like Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kante following Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Pro League is set to garner huge audiences in the future, as they look to build a league that can compete at an international level.

The Middle East has become an attractive destination for ageing players leaving European clubs, as movements to the MLS are seemingly becoming less popular (minus Messi to Inter Miami of course). This trend is helping The SPL earn a high profile status in the world of football, which will greatly help their campaign to co-host the 2030 World Cup.

Al Ittihad won the title last season and they certainly have a chance to keep their crown after signing Benzema, but the hoard of new arrivals will undoubtedly change the landscape in the upcoming season. Plus, Ronaldo's move to Al Nassr from the Premier League's Manchester United could take the team to new heights.

With that being said, it's time to delve into the SPL and see just how things will work as Saudi Arabian football develops.

History of the SPL

Football in Saudi Arabia used to be organized on a regional level until the late 1950s, where there was only one nationwide tournament called the King's Cup. In 1957, they introduced a qualification process that combined regional tournaments from different parts of the country. Clubs competed in their regional leagues to earn a spot in the King's Cup, which was the final stage of the competition. It's important to note that winning the King's Cup didn't necessarily mean winning the league.

In 1976, the first professional football league started in Saudi Arabia with eight teams. The following season, the number of clubs increased to ten. In the 1981-82 season, they merged the Saudi Premier League and the Saudi First Division temporarily to help with the qualification process for the 1982 FIFA World Cup. They divided twenty teams into two groups, and the top two from each group went to the semi-finals to determine the overall champions. The league returned to regular round-robin competition the following season, and in the 1984-85 season, the number of first-division clubs increased to 12.

In December 1990, the Saudi football federation decided to merge the league with the King's Cup to create a new tournament called "The Custodian of The Two Holy Mosques League Cup." It had two stages. The first stage was a regular league competition, and the top four teams advanced to the final knockout stage called the golden box. Clubs were allowed to sign professional players, making the league semi-professional. This system lasted for seventeen seasons before they went back to a regular round-robin competition. The league became fully professional in 2007.

Since 2008, Saudi Arabia has been sending four teams to the AFC Champions League every year. This includes the top three teams in the league and the winner of the King's Cup. If the King's Cup winner is also in the top three league positions, then the fourth-best team goes to the play-offs. If the King's Cup winner is not in the top three, the top two teams directly qualify for the group stages, and the third team goes to the AFC Champions League play-offs

2023/24 SPL New Format

From the 2023/24 season and beyond, significant changes are being made to the Saudi Pro League. The league will now feature 18 teams, an increase from the previous 16.

The format of the competition remains a double round-robin system, ensuring that every team competes against each other both at home and away. With the expansion of the league, each club will now play a total of 34 games during the 2023/24 campaign, providing an even more thrilling and competitive season.

The new format means that the top two teams will earn spots in the group stages of the prestigious AFC Champions League. The team finishing in third place will have the opportunity to progress to the play-off round of the competition. On the other end of the spectrum, the bottom three teams will face the unfortunate fate of relegation to the second tier. In previous seasons, only two teams were relegated from the top flight, while four teams from the First Division were promoted to join the elite ranks.

To maintain a balance between local talent and international prowess, the SPL will allow each participating club to register a maximum of eight foreign players throughout the season. This provision ensures that clubs have the flexibility to bring in skilled players from around the world while simultaneously nurturing and showcasing the talent of local players.

2023/24 SPL Teams

With two new teams added to the list, let's take a look at every side that will be competing in the SPL next season.

  • Abha

  • Al Ahli

  • Al Ettifaq

  • Al Fateh

  • Al Fayha

  • Al Hazem

  • Al Hilal

  • Al Ittihad

  • Al Khaleej

  • Al Nassr

  • Al Okhdood

  • Al Raed

  • Al Riyadh

  • Al Shabab

  • Al Taawoun

  • Al Tai

  • Al Wehda

  • Damac

When will the 2023/24 Saudi Pro League run?

The eagerly awaited 2023/24 Saudi Pro League season will start on August 11, 2023.

The fixtures for the upcoming season have not been announced yet, but they are expected to be released around the end of July.

The 2023/24 season will end in May 2024, but the exact date for the final matchday has not been revealed yet. This information will be provided once the fixtures for the second half of the season are announced.

What do the winners of the SPL receive?

With the growing interest from the government in the Pro League and the significant investment made by Public Investment Fund (PIF) in the country's 'Big Four' clubs, the prize money for the 2023/24 season is expected to rise once again. However, specific figures regarding the prize money have not been made public.

For the previous season (2022/23), Al Ittihad was awarded SR5 million (£1.04m) for securing the top position in the league.

Furthermore, substantial prize money is also distributed to the winners of Saudi Arabia's primary domestic club competition, known as the King Cup. Based on data from 2016, the champions were granted SR5.5 million (£1.2m), while the runners-up received SR4 million (£800,000).

These numbers are expected to rise as investment and viewership both increase, but official figures are yet to be released.

Who has won the most SPL titles?

In the 2022/23 season, Al Ittihad won their ninth Saudi Pro League title with the help of Nuno Espirito Santo. However, they haven't won the most championships in the competition.

That record goes to Al Hilal, who are determined to reclaim the top spot in Saudi football in the 2023/24 season. They recently signed Ruben Neves, a midfielder from Wolves, to strengthen their team. Al Hilal has an impressive total of 18 league titles, winning five out of the last six before Al Ittihad's victory in 2023.

Cristiano Ronaldo's team, Al Nassr, has also won the competition nine times. Meanwhile, Al Shabab has six titles, Al Ahli has four, and Al Ettifaq has two. Al Fateh had their moment of glory in the 2012/13 season when they won the title, but it remains their only triumph.

Rank Club Titles won
1 Al Hilal 18
2= Al Ittihad 9
2= Al Nassr 9
4 Al Shabab 6
5 Al Ahli 4
6 Al Ettifaq 2
7 Al Fateh 1

So, there you have it! Everything you need to know about the Saudi Pro League.

Check out our article on all the players that have moved to the SPL so far. Who do you think will make the move to play in Saudi Arabia next?

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(Header Image Credit: Yukihito Taguchi - USA TODAY Sports)