Saudi Pro League chief Emenalo on Henderson, Ronaldo, Salah and sportswashing

Daily News
30 Min Read

Saudi Arabia has dominated the transfer window just gone – but the two main questions are: how did this happen and what happens now?

In a transfer window that saw all-time spending across the world, Saudi Pro League clubs came out of nowhere to spend £701.3m, ranking second in the world for national spending behind England’s Premier League.

Helping to lead the Saudi Pro League project is former Chelsea chief Michael Emenalo, who spent six years at Stamford Bridge between 2011 and 2017 and helped bring in players such as Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante to the club.

Now the former Chelsea sporting director is tasked with centralising the Saudi Pro League’s recruitment and continuing to bring the world’s best players to the country.

In a TV exclusive interview with Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol in London, Emenalo discussed:

  • How the Saudi Pro League attracted the world’s best players
  • The influence of Cristiano Ronaldo on the project
  • Whether other major leagues should be worried about Saudi Arabia
  • Will Saudi clubs play in the Champions League? Is the World Cup going to Saudi Arabia?
  • Whether players turned down the Saudi Pro League over human rights concerns
  • Jordan Henderson’s decision to move to Saudi Arabia
  • Is the Saudi Pro League sportswashing?
  • Saudi Arabia’s interest in Mohamed Salah

Take a look below to see a full transcript:

Kaveh Solhekol: The Saudi Pro League transfer window has just closed. How do you look back because you have made a lot of headlines in the football world for the last two or three months?

Michael Emenalo: We are hoping that we have made positive headlines. We look back with great satisfaction that we have put the league in a better place than it was previously. We have been able to attract and embed some of the best players in the world. We have got now, as part of the league, very good players.

We have top players, then a healthy sprinkle of world-class players. That bodes well for the future of the league. We are also happy that the transfer window has come to an end so we can focus on something else and move forward.

Solhekol: How difficult was it to get those big players in and was that always the aim?

Karim Benzema during his unveiling for Saudi Pro League club Al-Ittihad

Image: Karim Benzema during his unveiling for Saudi Pro League club Al-Ittihad

Emenalo: It was always the strategy to open up the league to some of the best performers. Anyone who has followed the Saudi Pro League, which seems like a remote league but it’s not – it has been around for a while – will understand its fans are very passionate and that 80 per cent of the population of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are football lovers.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that when you put your plan in place you ask: how do you offer the best quality entertainment to our audience? That included bringing in the best quality players in the world.

Was it difficult? It wasn’t difficult, but it was a process of not knowing, when the plan and strategy of presenting it to these players, how it would come across. Fortunately, the players have looked at the plan, strategy and ambition and they expressed values of wanting to make this league one of the best in the world. They decided to join and we are grateful for that.

Solhekol: You were in the room when you were negotiating with some of the biggest names in the world such as Neymar. What were those conversations like? Did you have to convince them a lot to move?

In this photo provided Al Hilal club media center, Neymar holds a Al Hilal shirt after signing with Chairman of the Board of Directors of Al Hilal, Fahad Bin Saad Bin Nafel, in Paris, France, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (Al Hilal Club Media Center via AP)

Image: Neymar holds a Al Hilal shirt after signing with the Saudi club

Emenalo: Without giving away details of negotiations, strategies and privy information, what you want to do – which is what the modern footballer and athletes also wants – is to understand: is it worthwhile? What is the milk and honey? Am I going to progress economically with this move.

The second thing is: is it going to be fun? Am I going to have fun and be ambitious enough to sustain the level I have attained if I am a top player?

The last thing is: is it going to be safe and is there room for growth? This was something we always communicated to the players and they had to make up their mind.

It didn’t take long for most of them to understand: yes, this is going to be beneficial to me. Yes, I’m going to have a lot of fun because the other stars and players are coming and the quality of football is good. And, yes, we are going to be safe, we have seen encouragements of everything that is happening with this country and we feel confident coming in and being part of it.

They were open-minded, we have a clear strategy of presenting to the players of what the adventure for them is looking professionally and personally and as a way of contributing to the growth of the game worldwide. I think I will be glad to think that those points were well communicated to them and acceptable, given they have all signed up.

Solhekol: Looking from the outside in, most people will think that these players are just going to Saudi Arabia for money…

Emenalo: Just like the bankers, journalists, lawyers and medical experts, footballers from other smaller countries that emigrated to the Premier League, or the ones who went to Serie A in the 1990s, the sensation of progress always starts with some sort of economic advantage. Also, we can reasonably deduce that whenever there is a high level of economic renumeration, it means the ambition is high and there will be work in other areas, the quality of the league will be great, infrastructures will be good and their families will be looked after.

All those things go hand in hand. It’s not ‘let me go and take money and play in a mud pit and fight in the mud.’ That’s not what it is. There is an economic incentive, the thing that inspires most of the players is to do something really special and something unique. You have already heard from Cristiano Ronaldo: “I set this space.” It’s a form of a wave to himself to say: “I anticipated this to be great and I did something special.” And others are inspired by that.

Solhekol: Do you feel that Ronaldo was the one who made the difference? So, when he went to the Saudi Pro League, the other players went: if Cristiano has done it, then we feel more comfortable following in his footsteps?

Emenalo: Absolutely. Given his pedigree, it didn’t hurt that he had the balls to do this. All these guys know each other, especially at the top of the tree.

And there were big conversations of: “Wow, I can’t believe you did this.”

“Well, I did this and it’s big and it’s magnificent.”

So, definitely Ronaldo takes some credit of having unlocked a lot of interest in some of his colleagues, yes.

Solhekol: Some of the figures being talked about: players being paid £2m or £3m a week, with world record offers. Do you think people are getting carried away? Do you think: this is not reality and it does not correspond to the contracts I have on the table?

Emenalo: Yes.

Solhekol: Or do you think the reports are accurate?

Emenalo: The reports are largely inaccurate. There is an oceanic difference to what is being reported and what the facts are. Are there players who have been superbly renumerated? Of course. But I remember the days of the Barcelona Dream Team and the Galacticos at Real Madrid. When those numbers came out, everybody flinched. When Ronaldo was sold for £80m from Manchester United to Real Madrid, everybody thought it was insane and thought football had gone crazy. I can also refer you to other sports in the world, like in baseball, and I invite you to look at some of the numbers and contracts that have been drawn out for individuals.

This is business. The people who have shouted from the rooftops that football needed to be first professionalised then turned into a lucrative business are now complaining that, like any business, the numbers are starting to sound a bit astronomical.

It is true that the economic numbers are great, but there is a lack of truth in the numbers being put out there.

Solhekol: Should other leagues be worried about what is happening? The UEFA president and the Premier League have said they are not…

Emenalo: And they shouldn’t be concerned! There is no need to be worried! We are just a part of what we consider to be one of the best sporting organisations in the world, which is FIFA, UEFA and the other federations.

What we are trying to do is contribute to the development of football globally, we are not here to prove anything except offer quality entertainment to the youth and population of Saudi Arabia. And hopefully, in doing so, attract looks and interest from around the world. If we succeed in doing that, it hopefully enhances the sport globally and the business of football worldwide.

That is all we are trying to do and it shouldn’t worry anybody. There is no reason for concern. We are looking forward to collaborating with other major influences in the industry, to work together with them and to continue to grow the game.

Solhekol: What do you say to people who say, is this a repeat of what happened in China with their Super League? A lot of money was spent and very quickly it all stopped. Is this going to last longer?

Emenalo: Not only will it last longer, but I believe it will be there to stay and it will continue to grow. If anyone has paid any attention to Saudi football, it will know that its population are very passionate about the game. This is a well put-out plan that has been existence for a very long time and there is a simple fact that the effort made in this window shows there will be easy interest in the best footballers joining the league.

We are not just bringing players in to pay them so that they can run around and be famous for a few days. There is an embedded plan to improve the infrastructure and develop the academies, recreational football. There is a bigger strategy to that. It is not just acquisition for players, that’s why I believe the league is here to stay for a very long time.

Solhekol: Is the ultimate aim to have Saudi clubs play in the UEFA Champions League? Is that something you have discussed or can see happening?

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Cristiano Ronaldo says it is a privilege to change the culture and game in Saudi Arabia and hopes it will be a top league

Emenalo: No. That is a very far-fetched dream that none of us have contemplated. At least, I have not been part of any conversation at any level that has suggested anything of such. We’re happy with where we are.

We believe football belongs to everybody and that top-level football belongs to everyone, as with the case with the World Cup in Qatar. There were doubts and concerns and it ended up being one of the very best World Cups of all time.

We don’t feel that we need the validation of the Champions League to be one of the top leagues in the world. Football doesn’t need the validation of the Champions League to be considered interesting and wonderful. I played it on the concrete grounds of Nigeria in my local state and I came out to play in front of 20,000 people who watched training sessions alone.

It has since declined because of the influence of European football and technology and football streaming. Things change and evolve, but football is football. And football will be wonderful, whether it is played in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in Angola or in Munich or here in London. It would be enjoyable and every person deserves the right to see their best-admired players play live.

Solhekol: Is the aim as well to have the World Cup in Saudi Arabia?

Emenalo: That is a strategy that is above my remit. I have not been part of a discussion to go that far. Our job right now is to have one of the best entertaining, stable leagues in the world and then we will evolve from that.

But would it be wonderful to have the World Cup in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Of course. They would represent that particular tournament wonderfully.

Solhekol: What about your job? We are used to having directors of football for clubs, like the job you did at Chelsea and Monaco. How does it work having a director of football for a league?

Emenalo: I am part of a mechanism to do a number of things. One of which is to better professionalise the processes that help the football organisations do better. It is also part of a process to help grow eventual sustainability. It is a process that will lead to better academies, youth players and also a process of creating efficiencies in the acquisition of international players.

A significant part of that mechanism is mapping out the squads, making valuations of the players we have and coming in and contributing heavily in developing the clubs in other areas technically.

Solhekol: Are there any players who haven’t wanted to move to the Saudi Pro League for non-footballing reasons?

Emenalo: I have not encountered one yet.

Solhekol: So no-one has brought up the issues of human rights or LGBTQ rights? No-one has said they don’t want to play in Saudi Arabia because of that?

Emenalo: No, and I don’t see why it should be a concern for them – because they are professionals in the open market, they are experts in certain areas of their life and that’s where they should keep their focus in making a professional decision.

Solhekol: Is that a new thing as far as players are concerned? You’ve been a player and executive, have you met a player who has political concerns about playing in particular places?

Emenalo: There are players who have had that. There are players who have chosen to become activists – the great Muhammad Ali was one of them. There are athletes who have shown their support and their activism in a different way. People have their values, their personalities and their own ways, backgrounds and influences. That’s what makes the world so wonderful.

Now, we live in a world of easy access, technology and social media – and it’s very easy to criticise and talk about people’s actions and responsibilities. But these guys [the players who have joined Saudi Arabia] are exceptional professional, artists and they have a talent. They have honed skills over years and hours to be at the top.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of that they want to make decisions based on the areas where they have incredible expertise. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care or they have lost their values. But it means their focus is to be the best they can be in the short space of time they have to do their job and do it well.

Solhekol: What do you make of Jordan Henderson’s situation and how he has dealt with it?

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Saudi Pro League director of football Michael Emenalo says he is proud of Jordan Henderson and claims he should not be vilified for joining Al Ettifaq

Emenalo: Well first, I am very proud of Jordan. I’m very proud that he chose, of his own volition, to express support and values that he shares. He shouldn’t be vilified for that. I’m very proud that he is able to make a decision, professionally, that allows him and his family to continue to live the life that he wants to live.

The Jordan Henderson I know hasn’t changed, I met and had a conversation with him. He remains passionate about the game and about life, he remains passionate about his beliefs. I have nothing but the best wishes for him and I’m sure that he will help not only the league grow on the pitch, but also off of it with some of these issues. I have no doubt he will be a wonderful addition to our league.

Solhekol: What would you say to people who would say this is more to do with sports washing than sport? Is there an element to it – because the media is now talking about Saudi Arabia in a much more positive way, about footballers, rather than focusing on negatives?

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Kaveh Solhekol talks about the ambitions for the Saudi Pro League, how Premier League clubs are benefitting and what was made of Jordan Henderson’s interview in Saudi Arabia

Emenalo: I would say that I don’t see historically what sports washing has to do with it. This has been part of progress for so many enterprises for different organisations. Today is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, because they have decided to offer quality entertainment to its people, to try to participate in what everybody recognises is a blossoming industry.

I think people can make of it what they want, that’s not the way I see it and I don’t think that’s what it’s about. From everything I’ve seen, the strategies that have been in place, I’ve not seen a clear indication that this is anything but wanting to have one of the best leagues in the world to provide quality entertainment and leadership examples to the people of Saudi Arabia.

Solhekol: How would you describe the quality of football in Saudi Arabia? The champions, Al Ittihad, how good do you think they are compared to the English pyramid?

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Neymar says he would not be surprised if the Saudi Pro League is as high a standard as Ligue 1 considering the quality of players who have joined the league

Emenalo: You make that question very easy by mentioning Al Ittihad! I think they’re a side that most Premier League teams would be very happy to have. It’s a quality side, where you have the Ballon D’Or [winner] and the player who won back-to-back Premier Leagues with different clubs, N’Golo Kante. You have all these wonderful players, and the players who were there before.

It’s a very, very good team and a very, very good league. The quality is surprisingly very high. You will hear some of the players who have just arrived saying that. Now that quality is spread out and trickling down to all the other clubs, not just the big four clubs. So that’s wonderful for the league.

The games have been thrilling, and that’s in the weather which hasn’t been the best. Once we come back from the international break, we are going to be treated to some wonderful football in the league.

Solhekol: Are we too focused in Western Europe on our own football, instead of seeing it as a truly global sport?

Emenalo: Yes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of the competitiveness that’s in all of us. When I was at Chelsea, I didn’t like anything that the other big clubs did. That fuels my ability to continue to find ways to make my club better.

We congratulated the MLS for what they’re trying to do, and hope they grow to be a league every single player would want to go to. That’s what we want for the SPL. We’re happy the Premier League and western leagues have taken a lead, and we congratulate them, but again that’s why there should be no source for concern. We’re here to add value to what is already a fantastic industry.

Solhekol: Some of the players who didn’t go to Saudi Arabia, Kylian Mbappe for instance, Lionel Messi. What were the reasons they gave for not going?

Emenalo: I don’t think there was any reason needed. There was no explanation needed. You don’t know what is happening within a certain football family, whether it’s personal or with their clubs, or with individuals and their family. We can’t really know for sure. What we know is you put your best foot forward, try to work as hard as possible to put a convincing argument together as to why the player should join the adventure, and they make their decision. We solicit no further explanation.

Solhekol: What’s your relationship like with Premier League clubs?

Emenalo: The Premier League clubs are seasoned and very experienced. They understand what this is all about and ultimately they will welcome it. It’s good for the industry, that’s all they’ve always wanted. I was very proud to be part of the Premier League, I consider it to be the best sporting organisation in the world. But like everything else, they should be open and welcome competition, especially one which helps the industry they are in grow and be better.

Solhekol: This isn’t just going to be a flash in the pan, it’s not going to be just one window. Do you see this growing?

Emenalo: It’s not flash in the pan regarding continuous development because football never stops. As far as acquisition is concerned, I don’t anticipate there will continue to be flurry of activity.

The reason being that we have 18 clubs, and they have an allocation of eight foreign players they can bring in – and a lot of them have filled their allocations, and signed two to four-year contracts, so there will be some stability and I don’t know if there will be a flurry.

It’s time for us to turn our attention to other parts of growing the league – infrastructure, development, academies, regional school players and the rest of that.

Solhekol: A lot of Liverpool supporters have been very worried recently about the possibility of Mohamed Salah leaving. He stayed – do you think Saudi clubs will come back to try to sign him?

Emenalo: First and foremost, Salah is one of the best players on the planet. I’ve said before, privately and publicly that we welcome anybody that wants to come to the SPL. That includes Salah.

But we have to do things in a very professional and respectful manner. That’s what we’re there for, it’s what the SPL has been refined to do – bring professionalism, respect of efficiencies, and do things in a competent way.

If it didn’t happen, it’s not because we no longer fancy the player, or because we have a problem with Liverpool. It’s because certain things that need to align didn’t. Nobody is angry, we move on, but we close no doors and if the opportunity is there to do things and do it well, and it brings Mo Salah to the SPL, we’ll be very grateful.

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