An XI of great players you had no idea are playing in the middle east
Cristiano Ronaldo is reportedly set to become the biggest signing in the history of football in the middle east – but he wouldn’t be the first high-profile name to play in the region, with former Barcelona, Arsenal, Manchester City and Sevilla stars currently plying their trade in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
It’s been widely reported that Ronaldo has a mammoth offer on the table from Saudi Pro League side Al-Nassr. He’s currently a free agent after a controversial mid-season exit from Manchester United, and would face one or two familiar faces in the Saudi top flight if he takes up the offer.
We’ve put together a full XI of great players who are currently turning out in the Saudi Pro League, the Qatar Stars League or the UAE Pro League. Honourable mentions to Allan, Helder Costa, Miralem Pjanic, Pizzi, Adel Taarabt, Andre Ayew and Grzegorz Krychowiak, all of whom could easily have been included in this XI.
GK: David Ospina
The veteran Colombia international and former Arsenal and Napoli goalkeeper is currently between the sticks for Saudi Pro League side Al Nassr. The 34-year-old could soon be welcoming Ronaldo to the dressing room.
The pair will be well acquainted from their time in Italy, during which Ronaldo scored past Ospina in Juventus’ 2020 Supercoppa Italiana victory.
RB: Jason Denayer
We’re getting off to a bit of a bad start here, given that the vast majority of Denayer’s career performances have come at centre-back. But there’s a conspicuous lack of high-profile veteran right-backs out in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But Denayer has deputized on the right side of a backline on occasion, so that’s good enough for us.
The one-time Man City starlet never quite fulfilled his potential as the successor to Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, and was left out of Roberto Martinez’s Belgium squad for Qatar 2022, but he’s still had a solid career.
Denayer helped with a Turkish Super Lig title with Galatasaray back in 2017-18 and made over 100 appearances for Lyon, featuring for the Ligue 1 side as they memorably dumped out Man City en route to the 2019-20 Champions League semi-finals. He’s still only 27 and currently turning out for Dubai-based Shabab Al Ahli.
CB: Konstantinos Manolas
You just hear his voice in Peter Drury’s voice, don’t you?
THE GREEK GOD IN ROME!… is only 31, and has recently joined Emirati outfit Sharjah, following a short stint back home with Olympiakos.
📅 OTD in 2018…
"Roma have risen from their ruins! Manolas the Greek God in Rome!"
One of THE great Champions League moments 🙌
Take it away, Peter Drury…pic.twitter.com/GGmRvrHrbz
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) April 10, 2019
CB: Ahmed Hegazy
You may remember the experienced Egypt international from his time at West Brom.
Slaven Bilic was reportedly unhappy with the club hierarchy for going over his head and allowing Hegazi to depart. The centre-back spent most of the Baggies’ doomed 2020-21 Premier League campaign out on loan at Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad. The move was made permanent at the end of the season and he remains there to this day, playing a key role as they finished narrow runners-up to perennial champions Al-Hilal last term.
LB: Marc Muniesa
A La Masia academy graduate that went on to make over 50 Premier League appearances for Stoke City, Muniesa has become something of a forgotten man in the western sphere.
Turning out for Qatari side Al-Arabi since 2019, the 30-year-old defender might not have quite hit the heights expected when he was first breaking through at Barcelona over a decade ago, but he’s enjoyed a solid career for which he’s been very well-remunerated.
CM: Ever Banega
Those that know, know. If you watched Sevilla regularly between 2014 and 2020, you’ll fondly remember Banega as a wonderful midfielder, blessed with guile and grit.
The Argentinian left the La Liga outfit in 2020, not long after shining in a third Europa League triumph with the club. He joined Saudi club Al Shabab, where he remains to this day at the age of 34.
CM: Steven N’Zonzi
A more than decent player with almost 200 Premier League appearances for Blackburn Rovers and Stoke City, N’Zonzi went on to enjoy a superb stint at Sevilla, where he starred alongside Banega in midfield as they beat Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool 3-1 in the 2016 Europa League final.
He subsequently turned out for Roma, Galatasaray and Rennes and was part of France’s 2018 World Cup-winning squad, ably replacing N’Golo Kante in the 4-2 victory over Croatia in the final. Now he’s winding down his career at Al-Rayyan, who currently sit bottom of the Qatar Stars League after picking up just one point from their opening seven games.
Thiago Alcantara’s younger brother is one of the great nearly-men of his generation. Unlike his Spanish international sibling, Rafinha followed in his father’s footsteps and represented Brazil, winning Olympic Gold with the Selecao back in 2016.
Rafinha always showed flashes of his quality at Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Inter, PSG and Real Sociedad, but he struggled with injuries and could never quite kick on to nail down a spot as a first-team regular. In September he left the French champions to join Al Arabi on a two-year deal – his new side currently sit top of the Qatar Stars League table.
CAM: Santi Cazorla
Having endured an injury nightmare at Arsenal that threatened to lose him a leg, let alone his football career, Cazorla’s Indian summer at Villarreal was truly beautiful to witness.
Those that watched the technical wizard turn out for the Yellow Submarine would’ve told you that he still had more to give in one of Europe’s top leagues, even at the age of 35, when he decided to depart for Al Sadd. But it’s hard to begrudge him one last bumper payday.
He soon turns 38, but is still going strong, having played under Xavi and won two league titles during his time in Qatar.
Ohhhhhhh Santi Cazorla…
Two goals on his debut for Al Sadd – including this rocket! 🚀 pic.twitter.com/ZHsnJgd0Vu
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) September 4, 2020
LW: Matheus Pereira
Anyone that watched the thrilling promotion race between Leeds, West Brom and Brentford back in 2019-20 will tell you what a superbly talented player Pereira is.
The Brazilian was the Baggies’ outstanding player as they went up alongside Leeds and was their only real bright spark as they sunk back down like a stone, scoring 11 goals in 33 Premier League appearances.
He left the Hawthorns following relegation, opting to join Al Hilal ahead of a number of top European clubs chasing his signature. Pereira has won the Saudi Super Cup, the Asian Champions League and the Saudi Pro League during his 18 months in Riyadh. Still just 26, don’t be surprised if he returns to Europe in the coming years.
ST: Paco Alcacer
The once wildly-prolific former Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund striker terminated his contract with Villarreal by mutual consent in the summer to sign a three-year deal with Sharjah, joining Manolas in the UAE.
It seems as though the well-travelled Spaniard has been around forever, but he’s still only 29.