Australian footballers and the Saudi Pro League: A brief history
The Saudi Pro League has taken the football world by storm in the last 12 months with a considerable investment that has never been seen before. Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Sadio Mane are just a handful of household football names that have been snapped up for eye-watering figures and put on wages unable to be matched anywhere else in the sport. But before all the glitz and glamour of $1 million per week wages and a $500 million league net spend, the Pro League was home to the careers of many prominent Australian footballers.
We'll start with Brad Jones, the most notable Australian to have played in Saudi Arabia, having spent three seasons at Saudi giants Al Nassr from 2018 to 2021. Jones, who retired from professional football in May after a severe knee injury, finishing his career with Perth Glory, joined the Riyadh-based side after winning the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup in consecutive years at Feyenoord. He immediately inherited the number one jersey and starting goalkeeper spot for one of the most decorated clubs in Asia.
Jones, a journeyman who has represented 13 separate clubs throughout his storied career, played more games at Al Nassr than any other club, with 111 total appearances in his three seasons in Saudi Arabia, which was almost a third of his entire career appearances. But it’s not only the time he spent in the Saudi capital that defined Jones’ stint in the Pro League, as he also achieved silverware during his time at the club.
In his first season, Jones was an integral part of the 2018/19 Saudi Pro League title-winning Al Nassr side, which pipped crosstown rivals Al Hilal by one point to the championship. He was also a crucial cog in the league's second-best defence that season. After his title-winning first season, Jones continued to pick up silverware in the following two seasons with consecutive Saudi Super Cup wins in 2019/20 and 2020/21, respectively. Jones' spell at Al Nassr peaked the late revival of his goalkeeping duties after spending almost a decade as a backup in the English leagues.
But not all Australians have enjoyed such prosperous spells in the gulf country, with many struggling over the years to find form and settle into the new surroundings. One notable example is Socceroos World Cup hero and current Adelaide United star Craig Goodwin. Goodwin signed for Al Wehda in July 2019 after they met his $450,000 release clause at Adelaide United.
He enjoyed a promising first season, playing 29 times in the league and providing four goals and seven assists, as Al Wehda finished fourth in the 2019/20 season. However, this positive would be the last for Goodwin in Saudi Arabia. Significant squad turnover going into the 2020/21 season, including the signing of fellow Australian Dimitri Petratos, saw Goodwin pushed to the side's periphery.
In October 2020, Goodwin joined fellow Saudi Pro League side Abha for the remainder of the season. Although he earned regular minutes, he didn't settle into the new surroundings and left the club in February 2021 to return to Adelaide United. That move was made permanent at the end of 2020/21, with his parent club, Al Wehda, relegated from the Pro League at season's end.
Another prominent Australian who spent time in the Saudi Pro League was fellow World Cup hero Mitch Duke. After a hugely successful 18 months at the Western Sydney Wanderers, spanning January 2019 to September 2020, Duke joined Saudi Pro League side Al Taawoun. However, life in Saudi Arabia was utterly different to the other ventures of Duke's career. He made only 12 appearances in the league, registering no goals or assists before returning to the Wanderers on loan in February 2021.
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But the lack of appearances and offensive impact paint little of the complete picture of Duke's time at Al Taawoun. On the Front Page Football Podcast, Duke said he was told by the coaching staff he wouldn't be utilised in his natural striker position, being deployed out wide instead. He was also made to train at night and lived in one of the country's desolate regions. While Duke admitted he was on a generous salary at the club, he went months without pay and essentially had to force his way out. These factors all played a telling role in his form and premature departure from the league.
While other Australians have plied their trade in the Saudi Pro League in years gone by, such as Mark Milligan, James Troisi, Rhys Williams, and Milos Degenek, no Australians currently play in the Saudi top flight. In 2018, seven Australians were active in the league. While Jones’ story is remarkable, given his success, most Australians who have played in the Gulf country have experiences akin to Mitch Duke and Craig Goodwin.
Jones’ three seasons at Al Nassr are the longest an Australian has spent in the league, and Rhys Williams is the only Australian to have had two separate stints in the Saudi first tier. Every other Australian featured in the Saudi Pro League hasn't played for longer than two seasons and hasn't returned to the league after their departure. A mixture of homesickness, new environments, different tactical expectations, and player mismanagement plays a role.
While there has undoubtedly been an uptick in quality in the Pro League, especially among foreign players, due to the vast investment, what was once a common destination for Socceroos and other aspiring footballers from the country is now an Australian ghost town and is unlikely to change soon.
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