Saudi Arabia take bronze at 2022 Asian Men’s Youth Handball Championship

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Al-Nassr have had a busy transfer window, bringing in big-name talent from the top European leagues. Goalkeeper David Ospina was with Napoli last season, Ghislain Konan has impressed in France and when leaving Reims had a number of high-profile options, while defensive midfielder Luiz Gustavo arrives from Fenerbahce with a resume that includes spells at Bayern Munich and Marseille.

The transfer window ends for the Riyadh club with the addition on Tuesday of another Marseille old boy in Alvaro Gonzalez, a further example of Saudi Arabian teams bringing in international center-backs.

With clubs in the ROSHN Saudi League now allowed to sign eight overseas players, it is no surprise that the names on shopping lists are no longer dominated just by goalscorers and playmakers. There are more and more defenders with all the top teams importing commanding center-backs to line up alongside local stoppers.

Gonzalez is just the latest. The 32-year-old former Spain U-21 stopper has played over 250 games in La Liga for Villarreal, Espanyol, Zaragoza and Racing Santander, and been with Marseille for the past three seasons.

Cultured and composed in possession, he will add a touch of class to Al-Nassr’s backline and is seen as an upgrade on Ramiro Mori, the Argentine who played at the back last season. His big game experience should make a difference.

The Al-Nassr defense was already looking strong. In the 1-0 season opener against Al-Wehda, Ospina and Konan took their places alongside Saudi Arabian international center-backs Abdullah Madu and Abdulelah Al-Amri, with Ali Lajami and some solid replacements on the bench.

Coach Rudi Garcia has some remarkable attacking talent at his disposal — Talisca, Pity Martinez and Vincent Aboubakar to name just three — but he has quickly assembled what looks to be, on paper at least, a top-class defense.

Perhaps the best foreign central defender in the league, until now at least, is Al-Ittihad’s talismanic Ahmed Hegazi. The Egyptian was hugely impressive in Jeddah after arriving from West Bromwich Albion last October. Already experienced in Serie A as well as the English Premier League, Hegazi settled into life in Saudi Arabia very quickly indeed.

By the end of 2021, as Al-Ittihad looked like they were going to be champions, it could have been argued that the 31-year-old was the best player in the entire league. Hegazi was a solid presence at the back, a genuine rock. It all changed when he went to the African Cup of Nations and picked up an injury at the quarterfinal stage. He played 18 league games last season, but just three times in 2022.

Had Hegazi never gone to Cameroon in January then it is entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that the league trophy would now be sitting in Jeddah, for the first time since 2009, and not Riyadh. The fact that he made the official SPL team of the season despite missing 40 percent of the action, shows just how good he was.

Foreign center-backs are now a feature of the league. Al-Hilal have Jang Hyun-soo, captain of South Korea’s 2018 World Cup team. One of the most under-rated players in the league, the 30-year-old would surely be still playing for the Taeguk Warriors had he not been banned from the national team for life by the Korea Football Association after falsifying his military service records later in the same World Cup year. Now in his fourth season with the champions, he has more than played his part with three league wins and two Asian Champions League titles.

In a league where there are plenty of Brazilians and South Americans, it is interesting that the top two teams from last season featured central defenders from Korea and Egypt. That is the same combination of countries that shared the English Premier League Golden Boot last season when Son Heung-min and Mohamed Saleh scored more than anyone else.

Despite that, Al-Shabab, fourth last season, have gone down the Brazilian route. Iago Santos had a good spell with Al-Taawoun where he also established a reputation for using his physical strength and aerial ability to become a threat from set pieces. In the first half of last season, the Riyadh club had Chilean star Igor Lichnovsky at the back before moving to Mexico in January. Santos should contribute a few more goals and that could make a difference for a team looking to finish higher up the season.

Move down the league and there are similar stories and similar international stars in the middle of Saudi Arabian club defenses. It looks as if the quality of these center-backs coming in from overseas is improving and, just like the prolific goalscorers, the very best could make the difference between lifting a trophy and looking on from the sidelines.

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