Selling Saudi Soccer, One Like at a Time – The New York Times

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The standard of play in the Saudi Pro League doesn’t matter when no one’s watching the games.

Neymar’s endorsement was not, perhaps, the most ringing. Back in Brazil to play for his national team this month, he had been asked — not for the first time — to address the lingering suspicion that, in leaving Paris St.-Germain for Saudi Arabia and Al-Hilal, one of the finest players of his generation might not have chosen the most challenging coda to his career.
Neymar’s immediate instinct was to dismiss the premise. “I can assure you the game in Saudi Arabia is the same: The ball is round, we have goal posts,” he said with a slight smile and a nervous laugh. “For the names that have gone to Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saudi league was better than the French,” he added. He was still smiling then, but it did not feel quite as warm.
Clearly, the accusation — one thrown not just at Neymar, but at the dozens of players who have been enticed to the Saudi Pro League over the course of the summer — touches a nerve.
That is no surprise. Nobody likes to be told that they have chosen the easy route. No athlete would tolerate the intimation that what they do, and where they play, does not really count. In general, soccer players fall philosophically somewhere between realism and cynicism, but even they tend to bristle when they are told their primary — their only — motivation is money. The early evidence, though, does not exactly play in Neymar’s favor.
Establishing the comparative quality of different leagues is an inexact science. What makes one competition stronger than another? Is it the technical brilliance of the best teams? Is it incompetence of the worst? Or is it the cumulative accomplishment of the tournament’s constituents? Is it the peak, the trough, or the median?
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