Saudi Arabia’s influence on football is growing, with stars drawn to the country’s top flight by the riches on offer, and the Kingdom is also expected to have an impact on the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations.
There will be 25 players who ply their trade in the Saudi Pro League at the tournament in Ivory Coast, with Kalidou Koulibaly and two-time African Footballer of the Year Sadio Mane – both key players for defending champions Senegal – chief among them.
That figure has more than doubled since the 2021 edition, although some pundits have claimed the developing Pro League is a step down from the level in Europe.
However, Zambia forward Fashion Sakala says his game has improved since he moved to the Middle East from Scottish giants Rangers.
“People expect that my level has dropped, or levels of other African players have dropped,” the 26-year-old told.
“It’s not like that for me. I think my performance is becoming even better.”
Listen to the World Football at Afcon podcast
Everything you need to know about Afcon 2023
Former Cameroon international Sebastien Bassong believes Saudi-based players are going to be “mentally ready” to compete for their countries in West Africa.
Meanwhile, he thinks that cohort could even have an advantage over their counterparts playing in Europe in acclimatising to conditions in Ivory Coast.
“They’re playing at a different temperature,” Bassong told Football Daily podcast.
“I think it’s going to be an advantage for them, because they’re not going to have to adapt from the cold to the heat of Ivory Coast.”
Sakala has certainly found a big difference during his time with Al-Fayha following stints in Russia, Belgium and Scotland.
“It’s always difficult to adapt, sometimes you make a short sprint, you’re already tired,” he explains.
“Then you start asking yourself if you’re fit enough to play games, but then you understand that it’s just the weather.”
Saudi Arabia have been criticised for their massive spending on football.
Fans of German club Borussia Dortmund have protested against Saudi Arabia’s growing investment in football
With several Pro League clubs bankrolled by the country’s Public Investment Fund, Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil forward Neymar and France striker Karim Benzema all now play in Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom has faced criticism for its spending on football, bringing about claims of ‘sportswashing’ to improve the oil-producing country’s reputation over its human rights record and its environmental impact.
Those have been amplified after Saudi Arabia was awarded the hosting rights for the 2034 Fifa World Cup.
Yet Sakala feels the criticism is unfair and, in some cases, hypocritical given the salaries on offer in England’s Premier League.
“If Saudi is being criticised that they are buying football, let them do it,” the forward argues.
“I’ve never seen any player playing for free because it’s in Europe.
“If you talk about the Premier League, it is considered as the best league because of money. It’s the highest-paid league in Europe.”
With hosting rights for the 2034 World Cup effectively secured, Saudi Arabia has also entered into footballing partnerships across Africa.
Visit Saudi was a main sponsor of the inaugural African Football League, The Gambia hosted their pre-Afcon training camp in the country and football federations in Rwanda and Tanzania have signed agreements with the Kingdom.
The desire to attract more of football’s superstars is undimmed, with attempts to prise Egypt captain Mohamed Salah away from Liverpool likely to be redoubled at the end of the season.
Napoli and Nigeria striker Victor Osimhen said he turned down a move to Saudi Arabia for “the good of his career” and not all players are finding their adventure in the country enjoyable.
England midfielder Jordan Henderson is reportedly seeking a return to Europe just months after his lucrative move from Liverpool to Al-Ettifaq.
As a developing league the Pro League also faces its own challenges, including poor match attendance.
“When you talk about the fans attendance, I think that’s the only problem the issue that we have,” Sakala said.
“The Saudi Federation is making an effort, they’ve changed a lot of things in a short period of time, and you don’t expect people to just start coming in the stadium.
“I think it needs time.”
Confidence and religious benefits
Zambia forward Fashion Sakala (right) in action for his country against Cameroon
Fashion Sakala (right) will be part of the Zambia squad returning to the Afcon finals after failing to qualify for the past three tournaments
Sakala had a difficult conclusion to his stint at Rangers, ending his contract midway through a four-year deal following the exit of manager Steven Gerrard – who now manages Al-Ettifaq.
Yet the Zambia star feels he has rediscovered his confidence at Al Fatya as he heads to his first Afcon with the Copper Bullets.
“When Steven Gerrard left, my career was going down and I didn’t enjoy it at all because I wasn’t playing,” Sakala explains.
“And then the other coach came, I wasn’t his favourite, but looking at the situation here in the Saudi league, playing every game, I’m trusted that I’ll deliver for the team.
“This is the trust that I was missing in the past few years and it has helped me to keep working extra hard.”
Morocco captain Romain Saiss, now at Al-Shabab, is also on this list of Saudi-based players heading to Ivory Coast.
The former Wolverhampton Wanderers defender argues the Pro League has helped him get better given the influx of big-name players.
“Most of the players in Saudi Arabia come from Europe now, they are more offensive and defensive players,” Saiss told BBC Sport Africa.
“For me, it’s good because it helped me also stay competitive because I can play against the top players like Benzema, like Ronaldo.”
Saiss admits he would have preferred to remain in Europe when departing Turkish club Besiktas, although Saudi Arabia has its own draws.
“I was close to sign for Marseille, but unfortunately it was not the case at the end,” the 33-year-old centre-back explained.
“We had to find another solution and then came the opportunity to come here (Al-Shabab).”
“As a Muslim it is good to live in the country. It is also good for my family of course. The contract is good.”