As 2023 comes to a close, it is time to look back at the highlights of what has turned out to be momentous year for Saudi Arabian football.
Player of the Year
It has to be. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner shocked the world by signing for Al-Nassr at the end of 2022. In the second half of last season, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star was very good, taking to football in the country as smoothly as most would have expected. This season however, he has been simply exceptional. He tops the goalscoring list, with some spectacular strikes, as well as the assist charts. It is not just his enduring skills, but his leadership and how he demands the best from himself and those around him, that make him the obvious choice.
Saudi Arabian Player of the Year
In a league that is home to some of the best talent anywhere in the world, it is far from easy for domestic players to stand out. Saud Abdulhamid has done so however. The Al-Hilal full-back starred at the 2022 World Cup and has been incredibly consistent this year too, not just with his defensive work but his ability to get forward quickly and put dangerous balls into the area from open play or set pieces.
There should also be a shoutout for Al-Ahli’s Firas Al-Buraikan. Last season he managed 17 goals playing for Al-Fateh, helping the team into sixth place and finishing fourth in the goalscoring ranks. Such form earned a big move to Al-Ahli and the goals have kept coming.
Signing of the Year
With Ronaldo signing in 2022, it leaves the field open for others. With so many new additions, the potential field is a big one. Allan Saint-Maximin came from Newcastle United and has impressed for Al-Ahli, Malcom has consistently excelled for Al-Hilal after arriving from Zenit Saint-Petersburg, while Damac’s deal to bring Cameroonian international Georges-Kevin Nkoudou in for a free was a stroke of genius.
But Mitrovic is leading Al-Hilal on a relentless march at the top of the Saudi Pr League table and has also contributed goals in the AFC Champions League too. The Serbian striker provides a focal point in attack, gives defenders a hard time and provides a constant goal threat.
Achievement of the Year
Al-Ittihad win the Saudi Pro League
In the 2021-22 season, Al-Ittihad looked set end their long title drought when they led the table comfortably with the finish line in sight. However, they crumbled in the run-in as Al-Hilal showed all their legendary powers of recovery to win a record-extending 18th title.
There would be no mistakes in 2022-23 however. Under the now departed Portuguese coach Nuno Santo, Al-Ittihad held their nerves to claim their first championship in 14 years amid joyous scenes in Jeddah.
Coach of the Year:
There are more famous coaches in the league but it is the well-travelled Chamusca who stands out. Last season, he led Al-Taawoun into fifth, just four points behind Al-Hilal. This time around, the Buraidah club have been even better and lie just outside the top three and despite not having the playing riches available to the Big Four, it is testament to the Brazilian boss that he has kept them competitive.
The 58 year-old has shown that you do not need a big name coach to be successful.
Game of the Year:
Al-Ittihad 3 Al-Hilal 4
The first huge game of the new season came in September and was an instant classic. For much of the world, it was a first glimpse of the new era of Saudi football and it delivered with some top-class entertainment and atmosphere.
Al-Ittihad had been worthy champions, adding stars such as Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho to their squad. They then won the first four games of the season and at half-time were 3-1 up against their biggest rivals. Then, Al-Hilal came roaring back after the break with Aleksandar Mitrovic completing his hat-trick and Salem Al-Dawsari also getting in on the act.
Al-Hilal have since then gone from strength to strength, while Ittihad have spilled into a season of inconsistency.
Goal of the Year:
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Al-Okhdood
Ronaldo has scored plenty of spectacular strikes over the years but there cannot have been many better than the one he delivered in November.
Just three minutes after he had found the net to make it 2-0, he added his second and the team’s third in stunning style.
Okhdood goalkeeper Paulo Vitor had cleared once outside the area and was looking to do so for a second time but the ball fell to Ronaldo 35 meters from goal and he chested it down and then produced the perfect lob that dipped late, over the heads of the desperate defenders.
Disappointment of the Year:
Al-Hilal losing the AFC Champions League final
While there will be some concerns about Ettifaq finishing the year on an eight-game winless streak in which they scored just three goals, Al-Hilal will struggle to forget the final of the AFC Champions League and a two-leg loss to Urawa Reds of Japan.
With a fifth continental crown within reach, it all started well with Salem Al-Dawsari putting the Riyadh giants ahead early in the first leg but he was sent off in the second half, by which time the Japanese team had equalised and then went on to win the second leg.
Performance of the Year:
Pakhtakor 1, Al-Fayha 4
Ahead of the final game in Group A of the Asian Champions League in December, few gave Al-Fayha a chance. In their first ever appearance, they had to win at the home of Central Asian powerhouse Pakhtakor. They did so in style with a 4-1 victory to squeeze into the knockout stages to give Saudi Arabia four teams in the last 16.
There should also be a shoutout to Al-Hilal who went to Qatar to beat Al-Duhail 7-0 in the semifinal of the continental competition. The Blues were five goals to the good by the break and could afford to take it easy in the second half, with Odion Ighalo finishing with four. It was a stunning result.