Will it hurt to watch Saudi Football – with all the big wage players that are moving to the league?

As a top flight league watcher (I started with the EPL just a few years before it was called the EPL), so I wondered: Is it difficult to watch the level of skills and skill disparity in the Saudi Pro League (also called their formal name: Roshn Saudi League (RSL)?

Naturally with the massive wages offered, I picked Al Nassr, led by worldwide football superstar Ronaldo. I must admit I’m not a Ronaldo fan, I often found him petulant, baby-like, and underwhelming on the biggest stages. Nevertheless, I cannot say he’s a poor footballer – quite the opposite, he’s a spectacular player, and well known. So, this exploration is to see if he and the Saudi game is changing how fun it is to watch the gulf based leagues thanks to major investments in the clubs and payrolls.

The game I’m watching is the AFC Champions League between Al Nassr and Istiklol played on October 2nd 2023, starting at 11a (PST/-8GMT)

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Some background on the Saudi Football scene for context

I’m going to try not to be political about this piece – it’s not about politics. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least state that I believe there are serious Human rights issues, among other major issues coming from the gulf, in general. I have watched as surface level improvements have been made, but there is a general distaste from mainly Western World football viewers for the whole topic. That said, some of the most interesting football battles I have watched in recent years have happened in major Gulf-based competitions amongst teams that don’t matter on the world stage, including the Arabian Gulf Club.

Suffice it to say, from a Western perspective, and understanding how hypocritical this may sound to other viewers, there is a bad taste in the mouth about Gulf football. OK, World politics are done for this article. I’m not even interested in opining on a country’s human rights situations, when I think there are plenty of issues in the Western world and the USA as well.

A final note: ESPN (Disney currently) covers the team and the league. Nike makes the kits. In the stands there is a MASSIVE D.C. Joker illustration. I could go on, but at least where the money discussion lies, this is not as difficult a pill to swallow for major corporations as it seems to be for discerning football watchers. Maybe I’m making more of it than necessary.

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Gameplay thoughts for the AFC Champions League match between Al-Nassr and Istiklol (10-02-2023)

Maybe unsurprisingly, most of the action is coming from AL-Nassr, with a couple of cheeky plays into the box within the first 8 minutes.

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There is a player down (#27 Istiklol) for multiple minutes, and gameplay has resumed with Al-Nassr having already taken 2 corners before the 11th.

This is the type of skills divide that makes one wonder about the impact on the gameplay. It’s fun to watch YOUR team beat up on a lesser side, but it’s significantly less fun to watch a high wage team beat up a team with no big name players. Is it watchable?

It’s painfully obvious that Ronaldo is playing in a holding position at or near the box, poaching goals. This should also be obvious by his current goal tally for the club in all competitions. He’s meant to be a goalscorer, and not necessarily to break a sweat. Who can blame him as an aging footballer – going out with a massive wage, and a lot of glory and helping to build a league.

It feels less gross than I thought it would though. It’s just painfully obvious that money speaks here.

I can’t even say the same thing about Messi – even though it’s not lost on me that Messi has a very similar sweetheart deal with Inter Miami.

For that opinion: I’m an American Imperialist I’m sure.

Twenty minutes in, and it’s been a boring past 10 minutes, a bit like watching Everton Play Sheffield United in the Premier League currently. A lot of back and forth, a lot of space, but not a lot of class on extended midfield. In the 22nd, there are appeals for a handball on a missed chance by AL-Nassr. Another corner awarded and another chance wasted by the Bigger club.

They weren’t wrong about the impact on finances though – the stadium is full, the pitch is beautiful and there is a lively crowd. A sea of Yellow and white. The Riadh Based club is clearly the better side thus far. Ronaldo has a spirited go at the goal, but it’s way off in the 24th.

Another near connection with the goal poacher, Ronaldo ultimately cannot connect his foot to the end of the overhead pass in the 26th.

There are some massive players on this squad. Of note, Ronaldo, Talisca, Maicon (retired for more than a year – but was an original big name at the club), David Ospina (not playing), Marcelo, Brozovich, Sadio Mane (not playing today), Otavio (also not on the pitch), Telles, Laporte, among others.

Ghareeb hits the post in the 29th, and it was quite a clinical strike JUST missing.

It’s surprising that the shoreline is what it is, as it’s been ALL Al-Nassr to this point, and there have been a couple legitimate shots on goal, with that last one missing by fractions of an inch, taken from a yard outside the box.

Al Ghannam has a go at the keeper, but laser focused and it’s easily handled in the 32nd.

Ronaldo, I think almost annoying himself, does not cover a lot of ground. He knows his role: he is there to snipe goals in the box. And he’s been on the end of a lot of the creative play by the forwards and midfield. It’s a hard thing to watch, a la Robin van Persie at Manchester United.

A flubbed shot in the box by Ronaldo in the 36th.

There is a knock on the goalkeeper’s forehead that is swelling now. He had taken what seemed to be an overacted hit to the head earlier, it seems clear it was real now. But he has easily handled just about everything this game with the exception of a mistimed corner, and that shot that hit the post.

Another corner to Al Nassr. It is well defended by Istiklol, considering.

Surprisingly with as much of a barrage on the box as Al Nassr has put together, Istiklol has parked the bus sufficiently well.

Evidenced again on the second best chance of the game in the 39th, where multiple shots on goal occurring during that set piece. Saved by the Istiklol Keeper, ungracefully, but saved nonetheless.

SHOCKING! A poor foul gave away a free kick to Istiklol and Senin Sebai played far too onside by the defender.

Istiklol is ahead 1-nil against Al Nassr, in the 44th! The scoreline is accurate to reality, but not to the gameplay.

Istiklol is in time wasting mode, and who can blame them. There are 6 minutes of stoppage, and this current state of the game is a shock to everyone in the stadium and certainly on the pitch.

Talisca and Ronaldo have featured in a lot of the shots on goal or at least goalward. Talisca appeals for a handball that does not appear to be legitimate. Another corner. Of course this is following a very near miss, after a shot on goal which hit the framework just before Talisca’s header.

Another corner, and Brazovich has been putting in work at the flagpole.

Talisca with another near miss header. Pressure on the goal right now is extreme by Al-Nassr. They do not look content with the scoreline as is.

At the half, the side with the goal looks comfortable in defending, but there are only so many chances you can squander with talent like Al-Nassr have. It’s still likely to be an Al-Nassr win after another 45, and arguably another 15 minutes of pressure like they’ve shown.

After a half of football, what’s the verdict?

It’s not nearly as hard to watch as I originally suspected. It’s clear what the motivations are. It’s clear what the goals are for players. It’s clear that there is a massive divide between clubs/skills/wages, but ultimately, thus far, with the exception of vast portions of the first 20 mins, this has been a much more entertaining match than I expected.

The second half gameplay notes

Within the first minute, Al-Nassr makes an almost unbelievable miss, sweeping in front of goal. There is an odd showmanship from Ronaldo. He is playing a part, but not as he traditionally has, there is an odd bit of acting (there was throughout his career as well), that is slightly less invested than with Portugal, or Real, or ManU, etc. He seems to be fully going through the motions, but admittedly, I didn’t watch closely the past 2-3 years of his career so it could very well have been happening already prior to my take.

A cheeky solo-volley by Ronaldo in the 49th goes over the framework.

Another save on a shot very much on goal in the 52nd. And now you get the feeling, it’s going to get tougher for Istiklol at this point. It’s all they can do to keep the ball out of the box. The defense is performing admirably. Shots on goal are fun as a viewer, but less so when it’s happening every 35 seconds and on only one side of the pitch.

It’s a corner to Istiklol, and this may prove to be valuable as it’s been so rare in this game.

It turns to nothing.

Substitutions in the 57th and it appears that Al-Nassr is feeling the pressure. Opposite subs for the defensive minded red shirts.

Header wide by #7. For someone as good at headers as Ronaldo, he’s been relatively poor today.

An offside run by Ronaldo gives a Goal Kick to Istiklol. Instantly it’s given back to the Al-Nassr side. It’s getting significantly more physical now as frustration sets in and the chances are squandered by Al-Nassr.

Betting on Saudi Football

It’s hard to find value. The bookmakers know the odds well here. There is not a lot of wiggle room. And this match proves the point. It’s never once felt like Al-Nassr will lose this game, even as they are losing.

The skills and wages divide is factored in in every way. Even if there are going to be upsets in matches like these.

If you’re watching, you wouldn’t dare make a live bet, it’s far too uncertain with gameplay like this. And you’d never take the opening odds pre-match.

At mere seconds prior to Ronaldo’s goal in the 66th, the odds for Istiklol to win was +5500, then +3500, then the goal some 45 seconds later, and now the odds are +4000 with no bets being taken.

Another shot by Al-Nassr.

In the 70th, it’s -260 (Al Nassr ML) and +4500 Istiklol ML now.

Defensive subs for Istiklol.

Talisca has scored as well! The Brazilian has bright Al-Nassr ahead for the first time in the 72nd. A clinical header.

There are more goals likely at this furious pace. Surely the bookmakers heavily discounted the over the top, lucky goal from Istiklol, and heavily weighted the pressure on goal as we’ve seen.

Again, I repeat, there is little value to be found in games like these. And there is very rarely, even when an upset play occurs, an impetus to bet in the live run of play.

A corner to Istiklol yields nothing.

Talisca scores a brilliant goal. It is gorgeous. And it is clear that The Al-Nassr squad is firmly in control now. It’s a bit odd to watch Ronaldo not celebrate his team’s success. But nods and smiles I guess for the Portuguese player should suffice.

Is it worth watching uneven teams in a league like The Saudi League?

Ultimately it was an entertaining match. But I think I’d still rather have devoted my full attention to Chelsea v. Fulham, even as Chelsea seems to have broken out of it’s rough run, with some goals in the first half. And as someone who notoriously can’t stand watching Chelsea or Fulham play, that may be saying something. I’m not invested in the teams on display here (Al-Nassr and Istiklol), so it could be that, but even at times when it was cool to watch a goal, it didn’t seem fun to me. The technical skills are there. The goals are there (4 goals through 82 minutes so far), and the officiating is actually quite good.

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But, it lacks a certain character that I had hoped would come with big personalities. Again, I hate to make another Messi vs. Ronaldo comparison, but I enjoy the life that Messi has brought to America. I cannot say the same for Ronaldo to a league I have watched in the past when it was less lopsided. Ronaldo isn’t running to coral a just missed ball, his heart just isn’t in it. But that goals tally is impressive.

There is a certain clinical feel that takes away from the enjoyment when you have a side so far beyond the skills of the other. I’d say the same about my own side (Arsenal) against a team that had only a couple points in the relegation zone. It’s fun to watch goals but at some point it get boring if it’s too one-sided.

Ultimately, if you are a Ronaldo fan, it makes sense to watch, though you won’t be as enthralled with his play as you were back in the day. If you’ve got ties to the gulf states, or have an international team player on the team, it’s probably worth a watch to keep tabs. But this is a pay to play league in my opinion at this point. Skills mean something in football. Even if there are temporary blips of quality from lesser sides. The constant ability to buy in superstars has worked well for this team. That, even as it hasn’t yet worked for Chelsea in the prem.

I could get away from my personal thoughts about politics and pay-for play football, for 90+ minutes to watch a game that wasn’t all that bad. But I do reiterate, it’s much more interesting when the skills gaps are closer together.

With 8 minutes of stoppage added, I am tempted to turn it off. We know the scoreline, and we know what’s likely to come. It’s been inevitable since about the 4th minute into the second half with the sheer dominance on goal by Al-Nassr. The team is top of the AFC Champions League group, and deservedly so, even if it’s obvious that the skill gaps were a valley and not a trench.

The 3-1 Al-Nassr win seemed inevitable the entire time. Despite many minutes of Istiklol being ahead.

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