Ronaldo effect? Saudi spending spree fuels Asian Cup hopes

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia hope that the influx of foreign stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar into their club football will help the national team win their first Asian Cup in 28 years.

Saudi Pro League sides have shelled out to lure big-name players while Saudi Arabia is set to host the 2034 World Cup, all part of a broader move into global sport.

With Roberto Mancini, who guided his native Italy to European Championship glory in 2021, now coach, the Saudis start their Asian Cup campaign against Oman on Tuesday.

The national side beat eventual champions Argentina in the group phase of the 2022 World Cup and return to Qatar for the Asian Cup as one of the favourites.

Saleh al-Khalif, deputy editor-in-chief of the Al-Riyadiya newspaper, told AFP that playing against, and with, the likes of Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane and the rest made it "impossible (for the Saudi players)... not to benefit".

"We hope that this strong competition will have a butterfly effect on the team," he added.

Saudi Pro League clubs' spending on players over the summer was topped only by the English Premier League.

Some domestic players have risen to the challenge of the influx, with Al-Ahly forward Firas Al-Buraikan starting at his club ahead of former Liverpool favourite Roberto Firmino.

National team stalwarts Salem Al-Dawsari, Ali Al-Bulaihi and Saud Abdulhamid have also played regularly despite Al-Hilal's galaxy of new stars.

"The popularity and competitiveness of the league, in addition to the competition with foreign players, has actually raised the level of local players," said Ahmed Ezz El-Din, an Egyptian analyst on SSC TV.

Not everyone believes the spending spree will benefit the national team, who have won the Asian Cup three times but last reached the final in 2007 and last won it in 1996.

Several players who appeared in the historic 2-1 World Cup win over Argentina just over a year ago have lost their club places because of the arrival overseas talent.

The impact has been keenly felt at Al-Hilal, who as well as Neymar signed Serbian pair Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Aleksandar Mitrovic, Brazilian Malcom, Portugal's Ruben Neves and Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly over the summer.

Mancini left more than a dozen of the World Cup squad out of his Asian Cup roster, although injuries have also played a part.

Portuguese coach Nelo Vingada, who led Saudi Arabia to the 1996 continental crown, sees no relation between the high-profile arrivals and the national side.

"The quality of the Saudi league has become better now but in my opinion it will not benefit the Saudi national team," he told the Kooora website.

Ezz El-Din believes the benefit of the Saudi league's spending may not be fully felt for years to come.

"In the short term, foreign players take chances to play from local players," he said.

"But in the long term, local players come into contact with players of Ronaldo's level and that reflects positively on their technique, commitment and discipline."

Saudi Arabia will host the next Asian Cup, in 2027. - AFP

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