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Saudi Pro League announces new strategy to nurture young talent, secure leading international players and improve club governance

• New Saudi Pro League (SPL) strategy aligns and builds upon youth development program of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) with new regulations to be implemented during 2023-2024 season and seasons ahead
• SPL appoint Michael Emenalo to Director of Football to lead new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE) to provide centralized approach to transfer and assist with squad mapping and player care
• Innovative new model gives clubs best possible expertise and governance to drive sustainability

RIYADH, 18th July 2023: The Saudi Pro League (SPL) today announced a new strategy in alignment with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) to drive competitiveness on and off the pitch with an emphasis on fostering young Saudi talent alongside securing the best international talent and improving the governance of all clubs for long-term success.

Amongst a number of new regulations and initiatives to be revealed ahead of the new season, the SPL will increase the playing time of young Saudi players in the league by reducing the age of eligibility from 18 years old to 16 years old, with immediate effect for the 2023-2024 season. A further such step focused on youth development will see the reduction squad sizes from the current number of 35 players overall, to 25 senior players with the remaining 10 squad members all having to be under the age of 21 years old, from the 2025-2026 season.

The new SPL strategy will provide a robust and clear pathway for young Saudi players and help bridge the progress from youth team football within the federation’s current player development system into the top tier of the country’s football league. Looking to the long-term, by the start of the 2026-2027 season, the SPL has also announced a mandate on clubs in the league to include 8 "homegrown" players that are graduates of the club academies within their main roster of 25 squad players, of which 4 are direct graduates from the club’s system.

In a further effort to create elite squads that combine exciting up and coming young Saudi talent with world-class international players and role models, the SPL has launched a new Player Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE). PACE will be led by Michael Emenalo who joins the SPL as the new Director of football with immediate effect, having been appointed by the Board of Directors of the SPL. Already all clubs have been fully briefed on the PACE process for international transfers and are activity working with Emenalo.

Former Nigerian international, Emenalo, is best known for his resounding 10 years of success at Chelsea where as technical director, he overhauled all aspects of the football operations. Under his guidance he revolutionized the club’s scouting, recruitment, development and loan systems. As SPL Director of Football, Emenalo will lead PACE and start immediately assisting with squad mapping and player care. He will be responsible for providing a centralized approach to transfers and helping to give all clubs the best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, yet sustainable future.

Saudi Pro League interim CEO & Vice Chairman, Saad Allazeez said: “The Saudi Pro League has an incredible and vital opportunity to help fulfil the country’s football ambitions and inspire more of our people into football and sport. From next season the SPL will become younger and more competitive, taking advantage of the groundwork the Saudi Arabian Football Federation has been putting in at the grassroots for many years. The new strategy also sees the Saudi Pro League take a central, elevated role in supporting and developing clubs through its Club Framework business unit, and by initiating PACE will provide and centrally implement checks and balances in dealings on the international transfer market.”

“There is much potential for new talent arriving in Saudi Arabia and a central function providing control and strong governance will ensure our investments are smart and benefit all in the league moving forward. Every club in the Saudi Pro League will get the opportunity to improve their squad through this innovative new model and Michael is the perfect man for the job. He has the ideal pedigree, the knowledge, the experience, the coaching qualifications and contacts to drive value and success for the overall league though this ambitious project.”

“The steps taken through PACE are part of a bigger plan and strategy that will be announced to improve the league and make it a world-class experience and product that engages globally and is competitive and sustainable in the long term, as one of the very best leagues in the world. This will be good for all football, good for all players, and good for all fans.”

Allazeez, added: “This strategy has been years in the making and has involved a lot of global footballing expertise to make the most of this unprecedented opportunity for growth. It goes far beyond and much deeper than the player transfers that are dominating headlines and focuses just as much on what happens off the pitch at the clubs. We are looking to the long-term and will be judged on that especially with helping the clubs become commercially successful with robust business models. The Club Development Program will also activate the fair play financial system, and monitor compliance with local and Asian licensing standards. We look forward to rolling out the full strategy in coming months.”   

Newly appointed Director of Football at the Saudi Pro League, Michael Emenalo commented: “I believe this is a role that I’ve spent the last 45 years preparing for. It was not a difficult role or offer to accept. I am intrigued by the audacity of the project and the ambition. This project has been in the making for a while. It’s not a spur of the moment decision, its well thought out. I’m impressed by the knowledge and input that’s gone into this. The Saudi Pro League offers a new opportunity first and foremost for the entire industry and I think will create avenues for good competition and for more development of young talent.”

The new SPL strategy builds upon the existing player pathway unveiled as part of ‘Tactics for tomorrow’ which was first introduced in 2021 by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and has since witnessed a massive investment in time and resources. Since 2021 funding in Saudi youth football has increased by 162% and 23 regional training centers have been established and opened. The impact has been significant and stats compelling. The number of registered male players has increased by 58% and the number of coaches has risen from 750 in 2018 to over 5,500 in 2023, of which over 1000 are female coaches.  As a result, every high potential Saudi footballer is now tracked and has a comprehensive plan, starting from the age of six years old through to turning professional.

Saudi Arabian Football Federation, President, Yasser Al Misehal commented: “At the last FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia gave a glimpse of what we are capable of at international level and demonstrated the quality of our domestic league, the SPL. But equally if not more pleasing was our victory in the U23 AFC Asian Cup without conceding a goal. The future is bright. And a lot of good thinking has gone into advancing football in Saudi Arabia, men’s and women’s. As you can see everyone is on the same page. There is very clear and connected pathway. Yes, we want a league to be proud, to entertain local fans and the world, but it has to serve the ambitions of the national team now and in the future. It has to be for the good of the game. That means a commitment to youth and the new strategy and regulations demonstrate just that.”

The implementation of the new SPL strategy follows His Royal Highness, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent launch of the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project, which comprises two main tracks. The first entails approving the investment of major companies and development agencies in sports clubs in return for transferring the clubs’ ownership to them. The second component, meanwhile, involves privatizing a number of sports clubs, starting from the last quarter of 2023.

The full new strategy including PACE and the Club Framework business unit will go live ahead of the 2023-2024 season at a time of genuine growth for Saudi Arabian football. This season, the national team recorded a stunning victory over eventual champions Argentina at FIFA World Cup 2022, the sixth time the Kingdom has qualified for the tournament in the last eight campaigns.

Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal reached both the FIFA Club World Cup and AFC Champions League finals, and the league continues to hit new heights, with the best home-grown talent and players from over 40 different countries generating real interest in the sport across the country.

A new women’s premier league has also been launched, generating further interest across Saudi society with new funding just made available by SAFF. The new program commits new funds support and develop Premier League and Women's First Division clubs (30+ clubs) to ensure the growth and sustainability of women's football in the Kingdom. With over 80% of the Kingdom’s population also either playing, attending or following football, the Saudi Pro League is playing a major role in the country’s ambitions to grow sport – from grass roots to the professional level – and encouraging the nation’s people to lead healthy lives.