MENA Sports Wrap: Is Saudi Arabia ready to splurge on women's football?

MENA Sports Wrap: Is Saudi Arabia ready to splurge on women's football?
Is Al-Ittihad's signing of Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre a sign of things to come for Saudi women's football?
5 min read
23 September, 2023
Football featured heavily in MENA region's sports action this week [Getty]

It's all about football in this week's Sports Wrap. Despite the transfer window shopping spree, top Saudi clubs still struggle to draw the crowds that their new signings had become accustomed to in Europe. However, that hasn't stopped the Saudi Women’s Premier League welcoming a recent transfer from England's Women's Super League. And finally, with the International Federation of Football History and Statistics's club rankings out, Egypt's Al-Ahly have somehow managed to trump some of the biggest names in club football.

A new frontier for Saudi spending?

Saudi Arabia has made its first splurge in women's football with the signing of Leicester City defender Ashleigh Plumptre.

The Nigerian international will become one of the first big names to join the Saudi Women’s Premier League after signing for Al-Ittihad of Jeddah.

She joins stars who have already signed for the Jeddah side such Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante, and Fabinho.

While the men's team stands top of the Saudi Pro League, Al-Ittihad women languish in fifth place in the Women's Premier League.

"Grateful to have signed for Al-Ittihad. Excited to start this journey alongside some incredible human beings," Plumptre tweeted.

"My journey of stepping into more of myself continues… It's more than football."

Al-Ittihad also tweeted a video welcoming the star to Jeddah with an interview of Plumptre wearing The Tigers' famed yellow-and-black jersey.

Plumptre was a regular starter for Leicester City, who finished tenth in the Women's Super League last season, which is widely considered to be one of the most competitive in the world.

Al-Ittihad is managed by former US international Kelly Lindsey, who was head coach of Lewes FC between 2021 and 2023.

Saudi Arabia has been widely condemned for violations of women's rights with some groups calling the Saudi Women's Premier League and Saudi Pro League an attempt at sports washing. This includes the jailing of women's rights activists.

Others have welcomed the social reforms enacted over the past five years, including opening up football stadiums to women and starting the domestic women's league in 2020.

Jordan Henderson plays in front of just over 900 people in Saudi Pro League match

Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson played in front of just 976 people as his Al-Ettifaq side won 2-1 away to Ahba Club on Saturday.

Henderson recently hit back against claims that his move to the Saudi Pro League was motivated by money. The 32-year-old England international earns somewhere in the region of a reported £350,000 - £700,000 per-week for the Saudi club and now finds himself playing in crowd sizes lower than what you’d find in the semi-professional National League, the fifth tier of England’s league system.

Abha Club play in the 25,000 capacity Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Stadium in Saudi’s mountainous southwest, meaning the stadium was only 3.9% full.

The attendance figure served as a reality check to many football fans on social media who are tempted to compare the Saudi Pro League to the English Premier League, with it being a far cry from the 55,000 fans Henderson was used to playing in front of at Anfield every other week.

Al-Ettifaq are managed by another ex-Liverpool captain and club legend Steven Gerrard and, though not one of the big four Saudi clubs backed by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), they have still managed to attract big names such as Jordan Henderson’s Champions League and Premier League-winning teammate Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Dembele from Lyon, Demarai Grey from Everton and Scottish international Jack Hendry from Club Brugge. 

Al-Ettifaq’s wins against Ahba Club and their 4-3 home win on Thursday against Al-Ta’ee sees the Dammam club sit in 4th place in the league.

Egypt's Al-Ahly comes sixth, ahead of Manchester United, in world club rankings

Egypt’s Al Ahly have been ranked sixth global club rankings - ahead of European giants Manchester United and Bayern Munich, among others.

The rankings were compiled by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS), which releases yearly statistics on the performance of clubs around the world.

The Egyptian champions were ranked 6th in the world with 236.5 points, while Man Utd in accrued 230 points in seventh place over the period of September 1 2022 to August 31 2023.

Only Manchester City, Spanish giants Real Madrid, Flamengo of Brazil, Inter Milan and Porto finished above the Egyptian club.

Live Story

Al Ahly have won the African Champions League an astonishing 11 times and are the current holders of the African Champions League. It’s no surprise that they were also ranked by the IFFHS as the top team in Africa and the Arabic-speaking world.  

Wydad Casablanca from Morocco secured the second position in the African and Arab club rankings and 51st globally with 152 points. They were followed by Pyramids FC of Egypt in fourth place with 147 points, and then Royal Army Club of Morocco, who ranked fifth with 128 points. Meanwhile, Raja Casablanca of Morocco took the seventh position with 131.5 points.

Supporters of Al-Ahly’s fierce rivals Zamalek will be seething that their team only finished eighth in the African and Arab rankings.