JEDDAH: Brazilian forward and former Liverpool star Roberto Firmino hit a hat-trick on his Saudi Pro League debut on Friday as Al- Ahli defeated Al-Hazem 3-1. The 31-year-old skipper found the net in the sixth, 10th and 72nd minutes for the promoted team who also fielded fellow new signings Riyad Mahrez, Allain Saint Maximin, Frank Kessie and goalkeeper Edouard Mendy.

Firmino left Liverpool in the summer after eight seasons at Anfield, during which time he scored 111 goals in 362 appearances and won the Premier League, Champions League and Club World Cup. Al-Ahli are considered to be one of the title favorites along with Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and defending champions Al-Ittihad. Backed by the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, the Saudi Pro League has lured big names from the major European leagues with the promise of huge salaries. Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante have also made the move to the Gulf state since Cristiano Ronaldo’s switch to Al-Nassr in January started the trend. Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has also taken over as coach at Al-Ettifaq.

In another development, Fox Sports have secured the rights to broadcast the Saudi Pro League, including games featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, in the United States, the network announced on Friday. Fox will launch the deal with broadcasts of two games on Monday featuring Ronaldo and former Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema. An industry source told AFP that Fox’s deal was for 100 matches this season and for both English and Spanish language rights.

The matches will feature on Fox Sports 2 and Fox Deportes as well as Fox Soccer Plus. The arrival of Ronaldo in the Gulf kingdom has been followed by a series of big money acquisitions and the league will now reach fans across the United States with the Fox deal. With Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami in Major League Soccer, part of a boom in interest in the sport, Fox will be hoping that they can attract interest from Ronaldo’s significant personal following. Saudi clubs have used their huge budgets to attract global stars, with French striker Benzema, England midfielder Jordan Henderson and Senegalese striker Sadio Mane among those who have moved to the league. Last month, Saudi club Al-Hilal made a 300-million-euro ($328 million) bid for Kylian Mbappe, though the Paris Saint-Germain striker reportedly refused to meet with officials from the club. Messi’s games with Inter Miami are broadcast on Apple TV but Fox have the rights to broadcast an average of 34 regular season games and eight play-off matches across their four-year deal.— AFP