JEDDAH — Michael Emenalo, the Director of Football at the Saudi Pro League, expressed hope that the upcoming January transfer window wouldn’t be as bustling as the historic summer window.
Emenalo believes that most clubs already have what they need, and the focus will shift to improving players through training facilities.
In his role leading the Saudi Pro League Player Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE), Emenalo, a former Nigerian international, brings a wealth of experience, notably as a long-serving technical director at Chelsea Football Club in the British Premier League. His expertise is instrumental in providing governance and advise to ensure a dynamic and sustainable future for all SPL clubs.
Emenalo shared insights in a wide-ranging interview with SPL, discussing his role, progress in the league, and future plans.
Addressing questions about his role, Emenalo highlighted the goal of attracting global interest to the league and bringing in quality players and staff to elevate its standards. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of fostering education in the football industry for Saudi nationals.
Reflecting on the progress made since his arrival a few months ago, Emenalo acknowledged that there is room for improvement but expressed excitement about the quality and competitiveness of SPL games.
“The quality of some of the games — it doesn’t matter who is playing, be it the so-called smaller teams against the bigger teams — the quality of the football, as well as the competitiveness, has been something to admire, and we are encouraged by that,” he said.
The success of the first transfer window, according to Emenalo, aligned with the goal of aggressive yet inclusive competition.
He said: “We wanted to do that while giving every single club in the league an opportunity to improve. I believe we accomplished that.”
“And I believe that, what you’re seeing, in terms of the quality of the games and the performance of most of the acquired international players, is a vindication that the transfer market has been relatively well. And we hope that we will continue to perfect our process in the future.”
He added: “We are also encouraged that the foreign players that have come in are showing the relevant expertise that we anticipated, and that the locals are matching that level of performance.”
“Overall, it is progress beyond what we expected, but obviously the ambition is very, very high. So we expect there will be a lot more, and we will continue to encourage and support everybody that is part of the process to get us to where we need to be.”
As head of PACE, Emenalo outlined key metrics for success, including a player’s history of high performance, reasonable acquisition cost, alignment with club requirements, and the potential positive influence on and off the pitch.
Discussing the SPL’s vision, Emenalo emphasized the commitment to raising standards across various aspects, including governance, public relations, commercial aspects, fan outreach, on-pitch performances, academies, and training standards. The ultimate aim is to compete at the highest professional level globally.
“We have to improve performances on the pitch, the academies; we have to raise standards of training and development of young players coming through. We want the medical establishment that looks after the players to be of the highest standard; we want to improve welfare for staff and players that are working in the Kingdom and for these clubs.”
When asked about unique selling points to attract top players, Emenalo stressed the league’s ambition, global outreach, and the resources to back up its intent. The SPL seeks to offer an environment where players can have fun, feel safe, and experience growth.
On the quality of life in Saudi Arabia, he highlighted three key areas for players: fun, safety, and growth. Emenalo noted that players currently in the league find these aspects fulfilled, contributing to their positive experience.
Regarding the investment in infrastructure and facilities, Emenalo highlighted their importance as the working environment for players and staff, essential for raising standards and attracting world-class players.
On the balance between attracting elite-level players and promoting local talent, Emenalo pointed out the need to grow and develop local players through well-tended development environments and academies.
“I think there was a time when this was a very simple debate, and all everyone wanted to do was limit the number of foreign players to improve local players. And I think we’ve seen that this doesn’t necessarily work,” he said.
“We’ve seen in places like England: the sudden infusion of world-class players in the league has led to the development of local, world-class players, and I think that’s what is going to happen here.”
He added: “But you have to grow these players, and when you use the word ‘grow’ or ‘develop’, it means you have to look at the academies, you have to look at the younger ages. That’s where the development of the process starts.”
In addressing the impact of prominent names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, and others, Emenalo emphasized the positive influence of top-level performers, considering them unique artists who inspire and set standards for young players in the country.
In conclusion, Emenalo expressed the league’s gratitude for having world-class players, pledged ongoing support, and welcomed opportunities to attract more talented individuals to Saudi Arabia.
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