Pep Guardiola Is Right, Saudi Arabia’s Pro League Will Change England

Make no mistake, Riyad Mahrez might be 32 but Manchester City had no intention of letting him go.

When the Citizens handed the Algerian winger a contract extension last summer it was with the intention he see it out.

The deal was unprecedented for a City player of his age, a fact only emphasized by its letting the similarly influential and older in years Ilkay Gundogan leave this year.

As the club’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain said at the time: “He has brought so much to the club with his skill, talent, commitment, and desire to win evident from the moment he first arrived. I also know that Pep and the coaching staff relish working with Riyad.

“He is one of the most exciting wingers operating in the game and we are all very excited to know he will be part of our ongoing drive to try and achieve more success.”

His sudden exit to join Al-Ahli Saudi Football Club, therefore, for a fee of close to $40 million is a surprise.

“Listen, every player is every player, it’s numbers in the squad, the market is open until end of August,” reflected City manager Pep Guardiola after the move was confirmed.

“We are not looking for replacement of Riyad in terms of skill because every player is different.

“We will see what happens with loan players, and which players stay here. A few things are going to happen.

“Saudi Arabia has changed the market. A few months ago when Cristiano [Ronaldo] was the only one to go, no one thought this many top, top players would play in the Saudi league.

“In the future, there will be more and that’s why clubs need to be aware of what is happening.

“Riyad got an incredible offer and that’s why we could not say don’t do it.”

Not just has-beens

The reflex reaction from European soccer’s establishment is to dismiss the Saudi project as an upstart hoovering up unwanted talent.

Writing in his regular newspaper column it was an argument a major critic of the league, former Liverpool captain turned TV pundit Jamie Carragher trotted out.

“Since Steven Gerrard moved to the Saudi Pro League and offered Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson the chance to follow him, I have been asked so many questions about their decision you would think I was joining them,” he wrote.

“I am not their spokesperson. I speak for myself, not those I respect. But as I consider the pros and cons of their career choice I am prepared to say this: if I was offered four times my salary to leave Sky Sports and CBS in order to cover the Saudi Pro League, my answer would be no.

“Why? Because I love watching and analyzing the best football in the world, which at the moment is the Premier League and Champions League.

“I could never be as enthusiastic when commentating on a league with so many players past their best, and with no history or tradition.”

Carragher does in his column go on to acknowledge, while some stars acquired by the SPL are past their best, many are not.

The 24-year-old winger Jota who joined Al Ittihad from Celtic most certainly has his brightest years ahead of him, while Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, 28, is in the prime of his career and was being courted by a host of top teams.

Ruben Neves, 26, was wanted by Barcelona before his $60 million transfer to Al Hilal, while Chelsea’s desire was for N’Golo Kante to stay under a new contract.

What do you mean by ‘no history and tradition’?

Carragher’s slight about the Saudi Pro League having “no history and tradition” is problematic, to say the least.

Surface-level Google
research will tell you that many of the teams in the Saudi League have been in existence for close to 100 years, play in arenas with capacities to match the top six Premier League clubs, battle in bitter longstanding rivalries and have decades-old stories about winning continental trophies or historic trebles.

It seems unlikely Carragher was unaware of that so the question is did he mean inferior “history and tradition”?

Because as I’ve pointed out many times before, this discomfort and dismissal of leagues outside of Europe is not the universally accepted concept its proponents believe it to be.

The English Premier League in particular has been blinded by its wealth to the destructive impact it has on the world’s game.

African nations have long been frustrated by the way European clubs snatch their brightest talents, often stealing them to play for their national teams in the process, so the greatest players the continent has ever produced barely ever play a single club game in Africa let alone the countries from which they hail.

South America, once with domestic and continental competitions that rival Europe for prestige, has been reduced to a production line for teenage prodigies who’ll be lured to the other side of the world before fans in their homeland have had a chance to glimpse their abilities.

Proud soccer nations with long histories and passionate supporters, like Mexico or indeed Saudi Arabia, are ignored totally on the basis that they are based on a continent where there are fewer nations of similar standing.

Let us not forget the English Premier League has only been in existence for three decades, the Champions League a similar stretch, that’s barely enough to qualify as a “history.”

When the creation of both started to generate capital which made European competition richer than everywhere else in the world, no one should not make the assumption it also made it better or imbued what came before with greater importance.

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