RIYADH: The top tier of Saudi Arabia’s Professional League will increase from 16 to 18 clubs from the 2023-24 season, the Saudi Arabia Football Federation has announced, with the move aimed at reinforcing the competition’s status as one of the best in Asia.
In order to facilitate the increase the expansion, only two teams, instead of the usual three, will be relegated from the top tier at the end of next season. Four teams will be promoted.
SAFF President Yasser Al-Misehal told domestic television on Thursday that the move, agreed in a meeting with the country’s clubs, will put Saudi Arabia’s league in alignment with the biggest and best in the world.
Germany’s Bundesliga has 18 teams, while the top tiers of the other big European leagues, England, Spain, France and Italy, all have 20.
“The largest international leagues that are highly competitive have between 18 teams and 20 teams,” Al-Misehal said. “We saw that it was time to take an additional step here in Saudi Arabia and raise the number of clubs to 18 in the professional league, starting from the 2023-24 season.”
He said that the most important reason for the move “is the desire to increase competition between clubs, which will help to produce more talent, and this benefit will be reflected in the national team, too.”
The federation is keen to expand the league at a time when Saudi Arabia is enjoying a period of success in football. The national team qualified for a sixth World Cup last month by winning Group B ahead of Japan and Australia. In November, Al-Hilal became champions of Asia for a record fourth time by defeating Pohang Steelers 2-0 in the final in Riyadh.
It was also agreed that from the same season, teams will be able to sign eight foreign players, one more than currently allowed, though only seven can play at any one time.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign players limit has been higher than most other leagues, but the rest of Asia is catching up.
In February, the Asian Football Confederation agreed to implement a proposal from SAFF to increase the four-player limit in place in the Champions League to six players starting from the 2023-24 tournament. Japan’s J League has no limit on the number of imports that can be signed, but only five can be included in a matchday squad, while South Korea also allows five.
How Saudi Arabian clubs can qualify for the next AFC Champions League was also agreed — an issue that had been debated ever since it was announced recently that the continental would change its calendar.
After the current 2022 tournament ends, the Champions League will switch from its usual March-to- November format to a September-to-May competition. This will start from the 2023-24 season, which means it will run alongside the Saudi Pro League domestic season.
While that may be seen as good news, the change produced a short-term headache for Saudi Arabia. Usually, the team that wins the Saudi Pro League in May qualifies for the Champions League in the following March, along with the teams that finish second and third, as well as the King’s Cup winners. With the continental tournament being moved next year back from March to September, there will be two sets of successful Saudi teams hoping to appear on the Asian stage.
For the 2023-24 Asian Champions League, it has been decided that the 2022 and 2023 Saudi league champions will qualify automatically, along with the 2023 King’s Cup winners. The team that lifts that trophy this season, with the final between Al-Hilal and Al-Feiha in May, will enter a qualification playoff.
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