RIYADH: A look at the leading goal scorers in the 2020-21 Saudi Pro League reveals something interesting, instructive, and above all inspirational.
The fact that they are all foreign is not a surprise, but the following should be: Three out of the top five are banging them in for teams in the lower reaches of the table and all arrived in the country with relatively little fanfare.
Signing big names for big fees excites the fans and media but clubs, especially those that invest in scouting and recruitment, can make stars as well as import them.
Argentina’s Emilio Zelaya arrived from Cyprus and to date has scored 13 goals in his 21 games for Damac, a team that sits next to bottom. Carlos Strandberg from Sweden has scored 14 in his first 20 appearances for Abha with the fact that none have come from the penalty spot even more impressive.
As are the exploits of Fabio Abreu, second-top scorer behind former French international and Al-Hilal star Bafetimbi Gomis.
The 28-year-old joined Al-Batin last October from Portuguese club Moreirense and netted 15 times in the first 21 games. The Angolan international player has not just demonstrated that there is talent to be found everywhere but that, no matter how modest your first steps on the football ladder, you can go to the very top.
And those first steps were very modest as they took the player, who moved to Manchester from Portugal as a boy, through the doors of Bacup Borough who play in England’s North West Counties League Division One North, essentially at the ninth level in the country’s football pyramid.
Bacup head coach Brent Peters was in no doubt as to how good the Al-Batin striker was as soon as he arrived at the West View Stadium in this small town located near to more famous Lancashire clubs such as Blackburn Rovers and Burnley.
Peters told Arab News: “He was about 15 or 16 when he joined, and he looked then as he looks now. He had a good build and physique, and he was solid. The league here is tough physically but we didn’t need to build him up and even then, he wasn’t getting knocked off the ball.”
It was not just about the skills that the teenager possessed but his attitude.
“He was also dedicated and very keen to improve and the most important attribute is that he had an eye for goal. That was always with him and I am not surprised he is still scoring in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Peters wasted no time in getting the youngster into the first team where he was soon making a difference.
“We gave him his debut at 16 and while he did start some games initially, he was coming on after 65 or 75 minutes when we needed a goal and he would be there for us, getting vital goals in vital games,” he added.
It was never going to last of course. Bacup had the player for a couple of seasons, and around 70 games, but knew that he would not hang around for long. He was too good and soon headed to Portugal with the best wishes of those he left behind.
“He played in front of 100 to 150 fans here and then he is playing in front of 70,000 fans against Benfica and then he has a big move to Saudi Arabia and is still banging the goals in for Al-Batin.”
Peters said that there was a great deal of pride in Bacup over what Abreu had gone on to achieve.
“It is great to see him go from strength to strength and to go to a league like Saudi Arabia and become top scorer. It is a fantastic story for us to tell the other young players who come through here.
“Here was a 16-year-old lad who comes into Bacup at the bottom end of the National League system, and he moves for big money and just keeps doing what he started doing here. We pride ourselves in development.
“Now, however, Manchester United need to be bringing him home as he is a diamond,” Peters added.
A diamond that was available to any club that had the right network and scouting system. Abreu’s success shows that foreign imports do not have to be of the big-name variety.
It is the same for Strandberg. He arrived last season to be relegated with Al-Hazem and was loaned out to Abha. Not much was expected, but since then his form has been something special.
“I don’t know if I am going to compete for the top scorer or not,” Strandberg said on Saudi television. “This is a hard league to score goals in as the quality is very good. There are also some great strikers in the league such as Gomis, (Abderrazak) Hamdallah, and (Omar) Al-Somah. I just want to try and score the goals to help my team win games and get points.”
If he does help the team win its relegation battle, then Strandberg deserves to be mentioned alongside those stellar strikers as do the other, less-heralded stars, such as Abreu, that have lit up Saudi Arabia this season.