SPL quality this season ‘vindication’ of transfer policy: Saudi league’s director of football

RIYADH: Michael Emenalo is the Saudi Pro League’s director of football, charged with leading its Player Acquisition Center of Excellence (PACE), which provides a centralized approach to transfers while also assisting with squad mapping and player care.

Appointed in July, the former Nigerian international brings with him a wealth of experience highlighted by his success as a long-serving technical director at Chelsea Football Club in the English Premier League.

At the SPL, Emenalo’s deep know-how is considered key to providing all clubs with the best possible expertise and governance to ensure a dynamic, young, and sustainable future.

Now a few months into the role, he spoke to Arab News about the progress already made and what was still to come.

Could you explain what your role as the league’s director of football entails?

Simply put, my role is, first and foremost, to help attract interest into the league locally and globally.

It is also to help the process of bringing into the league quality players and staff to help elevate the standard of the league — which is already good and, historically, very performant — but to take it to a level of competition that mirrors the ambition that the stakeholders have.

Also, part of that role is to help foster a process of education in the industry for nationals of Saudi Arabia so they can improve other youngsters in this country who are interested in football.

You are a few months into the job already. What is your assessment of the progress the SPL has achieved since your arrival?

We’re all very excited. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s not perfect, and our ambition is to always reach for perfection.

At this point, it’s very clear that there are things that need to be fixed. But we’re all very encouraged by the progress that’s been made so far.

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, and the competitiveness, has been something to admire, and we are encouraged by that.

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.

How do you assess that first transfer window in your current role?

Well, again, I think we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was to get our foot into the market and compete aggressively.

But, also, 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.

As head of PACE, what are the key metrics you use to assess the success of bringing high-prolife players to the league?

The metrics are simple — it is that the players have a background or history of high performance; that they could be acquired at a reasonable price; that they fit the model or the requirements of the acquiring club; and, last but not least, that they are individuals that we believe will not only come in and bring a great competency on the pitch, but who will also bring the desire to lead in positive and educational ways for youngsters in Saudi Arabia.

How busy do you envision the January transfer window will be, and how far along are plans in further strengthening squads with top-end players?

Well, I’m hoping it’s not very busy, because I think the job that was done has been quite interesting and aggressive, and most of the clubs, I believe, have what they need.

And hopefully the attention will now turn to work within the training facilities to improve these players and to allow the time to adapt and perform.

Now, whatever additional improvement that we need to do for any club, with time on our hands and preparation, we believe will be additions of the highest level.

What is the SPL’s vision and what must you do to ensure it becomes one of the lead destinations for the best players in the world?

Well, the SPL vision is all about raising standards; we want to improve standards in everything that surrounds the league and the clubs that it governs.

That means that we have to improve governance, we have to improve our public relations, we have to improve commercially, and we have to improve our outreach to our fans.

Of course, we have to improve performances on the pitch, the academies, and 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, and we want to improve welfare for staff and players that are working in the Kingdom and for these clubs.

It is just about making sure the league is at the highest standard we can possibly be. I think a better word to use is, I would want to make sure that professionally we are competing against and with the best.

What are the unique selling points the SPL can provide that contribute to attracting the game’s best players?

As I’ve said in previous interviews, world-class players and good players around the world are interested in an ambition more than anything else.

They want to see who is trying to go for the highest possible goal — and that’s what we are really trying to offer them.

We’re trying to offer a league that has incredible ambition, that wants to entertain, that wants to have a global outreach to everyone in the world that wants to improve the quality of their lives, but also extend their careers. And I think those are selling points.

We’ve heard many of the summer additions speak about the quality of life in Saudi Arabia. How important a role do you think that plays?

I think about three key areas for a potential entrance into an adventure — in this case, a football adventure — anywhere in the world.

The first thing you think about is, ‘am I going to have fun? If I go to this league, will I be able to have fun on the pitch?’ And then you think, ‘will I be safe?’ And the final element is, ‘will I grow?’

And, right now, what you’re hearing and what you see is that the players who are here think those three boxes are ticked for them. They can have fun here, but they and their families will be safe, and they have an opportunity for growth.

And the combination of those three elements means they have a good time being in the RSL (Roshn Saudi League).

There has been significant investment in infrastructure and facilities. How key is that for the SPL in relation to becoming one of the leading leagues in the world?

The infrastructure of facilities you mentioned are not just building blocks; they are the working environment for the players and staff.

And, if you want to raise standards to reach the ambitions you’ve set, your working space has to be at the highest level. That’s the goal.

How do you balance the desire to attract elite-level players with the need to promote local talent and develop a strong domestic player base?

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 have seen that this doesn’t necessarily work.

We’ve seen in places like England, that 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.

But you have to grow these players, and when you use the words 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.

And we want to provide them with an environment — a well-tended development environment — that will allow them to pursue the ambition while they are looking across and competing with some of the best players in the world. So that, by the time they get to the level where they are set free, they’re ready to be the stars like the guys who have come in at the moment.

What impact does having the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez and other prominent names have on the development of local players?

It never hurts in any industry to have the best performers as part of your actors. And these guys just listed have been the best performers for a very long time in our industry. We’re very, very lucky to have them.

I’ve always explained, privately and publicly, that top-level footballers are incredible and unique artists, and what they can do, you can only dream of until you try to do it, when you realise how difficult it is.

Those guys are exceptional artists, and the artists as time goes on will be greatly appreciated and copied by youngsters in the country and that will be for the good of everyone.

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