The waltz of players from European leagues to Saudi Arabia continues. Recently, Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy gave in to the Saudi Premier League's temptations. Are the two Senegal internationals putting their future with the national team at risk? A few years ago, coach Aliou Cissé stated that he would not take players from exotic leagues.
Kalidou Koulibaly, 32, and Edouard Mendy, 31, have joined Al Hilal and Al Ahli respectively. Two clubs in the Saudi Arabian league. The now ex-Chelsea players have been tempted by the Saudi kingdom's big money offers. With the Saudi Premier League regarded as a minor league, are the two African champions putting themselves at odds with the Lions of Teranga? Not really, according to the specialists interviewed by SNA.
Aliou Cissé reasonable or more flexible?
In 2018, Aliou Cissé told a press conference that "those who do not play in the major leagues cannot be selected". The Senegal coach stuck to his guns for a long time, despite a few choices to the contrary. Goalkeeper Khadim Ndiaye, for example, who played for Guinea and was a regular in goal at the 2018 World Cup. With the signings of Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy in Saudi Arabia, this question has come back into the debate. Uncertainty hangs over their immediate future with the national team.
For former Senegal international Cheikh Sidy Ba, the presence of Koulibaly and Mendy in the national team could be compromised "if Aliou Cissé's statement about not taking a player from an exotic league is anything to go by", he replied, before putting the coach's thoughts into perspective. I don't think that's the reality. When I heard what Mayacine Mar (National Technical Director) had to say, it showed that things had changed. Even if they sign for Saudi Arabia, Koulibaly and Mendy will keep their place in the national team if they are competitive.
For Babacar Ndaw Faye, editor-in-chief at EMEDIA, Cissé's position was simply a way of getting rid of players he considered to be on their way out. This speech was more of a pretext to get rid of players like Demba Ba, Papiss Demba Cissé and the whole clique playing in the Chinese league," he says. The proof is that today he takes on players from the Tanzanian, Cypriot and Guinean leagues. If, at the time, Sadio Mané had given in to a huge offer from China, I can't see Aliou Cissé doing without him," he added.
An "unfairly" underrated league
The Saudi Pro League has been stereotyped by some of Europe's major media outlets. Although it receives less media coverage than the major leagues on the Old Continent, it is nonetheless competitive. "People tend to think that the leagues in the Gulf countries are weak. I'm not of that opinion. We've seen players from these leagues do better at the African Cup of Nations than those from European leagues. Baghdad Bounedjah, a strong link in Algeria's bid to win the AFCON in 2019. The most decisive factor is the quality of the player, then his level of competition," said Babacar Ndaw Faye.
The journalist, who was in Morocco for the Club World Cup, has no doubts about the competitiveness of the Saudi league. "I watched Al Hilal at the Club World Cup. I saw a superb team that gave Real Madrid a tough time in the final. They were impressive in the semi-final with Marega. Now they've been strengthened with Koulibaly and other quality players. They'll be an even stronger team. Put in UEFA Champions League conditions, Al Hilal could easily reach the quarter-finals or even the last four. Overall, Senegal have very few players who play regularly in the Champions League, apart from Sadio Mané and Koulibaly. I don't think that will affect their level of play. What's more, with this wave of very good players arriving from Europe, the level of the league will be even higher," he insisted.
Former Saudi Pro League player Cheikh Sidy Ba has no fears that Koulibaly and Mendy will drop down the pecking order. "The Saudi league is tough, with good teams and good individuals. At the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia beat Argentina, the eventual world champions. That means there's football there. People used to have prejudices about these countries. That was the case with Aliou Cissé himself. Now he's had to change his outlook. It's not the massive arrival of today's players that's changing anything. It was already a good league because I played in it for three years. I know this league. I don't think Koulibaly and Édouard Mendy are mortgaging their chances of being in the Senegal team," said the former Senegal defender at the 2000 CAF Africa Cup of Nations.
Koulibaly and Mendy "untouchable
While the pretext of "ineligibility" for the Senegalese national team has been overcome for Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé, it will be difficult to apply for Kalidou Koulibaly and Édouard Mendy. According to Babacar Ndaw Faye, the timing makes this impossible. "Joining the Saudi Pro League should not compromise their future with the national team. At least not in the short term. There's an African Cup of Nations to be played in 6 months' time. I don't see any possibility of Aliou Cissé changing his squad. If you look at the past, you know that he's someone who relies on his certainties. We're talking about two key members of his squad here: his captain and his first-choice goalkeeper.
He continues: "Let's not forget that in the recent past, Aliou Cissé has given players no playing time at club level because he has faith in them (...) The only thing that can prevent Édouard Mendy, Koulibaly or other key players from leaving for Saudi Arabia is an injury. Otherwise, they still have every chance of being in Côte d'Ivoire and starting. Cheikh Sidy Ba agrees. "They won't lose their managerial status. They're players Aliou Cissé relies on a lot. They have international experience. If they are called up, it will be to play in their usual positions. Aliou will not put them in the background or leave them on the bench.
In the land of the reigning African champions, the departures of captain Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy are not a cause for undue concern. These two key figures in Senegal's historic triumph retain enormous goodwill with the fans, and even more with their coach. Aliou Cissé is set to change his mind and review his position on players playing in less prestigious leagues.