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Why Europe should not be taking Saudi’s fight to global footballing relevance lightly

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saudi arabia football, off-season transfers

A new player has threatened to rise through the football ranks and disrupt the established order, but how serious is Saudi Arabia’s push to become one of the games premiere leagues?

‘Here we go.’ 

They’re three of the simplest words in the English language which, in recent years, have grown synonymous with football’s dynamic and exciting transfer market. This is due, in no small part, to the tireless – and borderline alien – efforts of Italian transfer wizard, Fabrizio Romano.

Whether it involves Bournemouth or Barcelona, Romano gives every move an equal sense of drama and importance. His followers on social media have their feeds constantly flooded with deals and movements, to the point where they feel like they’re drowning.

In recent weeks, even his blindest followers would have noticed his transfer tweets are singing a different tune. More and more, he shares the departure of prominent European footballers departing for the prosperous riches offered by Saudi Arabian clubs.

It began with Cristiano Ronaldo in January – the Portuguese star received the highest football salary in history from Al Nassr – and continued with his former Real Madrid partner in crime Karim Benzema, who joined Al Ittihad at the conclusion of last season. 

Saudi Arabia football, Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo signs with Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr in January 2023.

And momentum hasn’t ceased with the acquisition of two of European football’s most decorated stars, with players even still flirting with their primes beginning to board flights to the Gulf. Ruben Neves, who was also courted by Barcelona, plus Edouard Mendy, Hakim Ziyech, Kalidou Koulibaly, Thomas Party, N’Golo Kante, and Marcelo Brozovic have all either made the switch or are rumoured to be doing so.

Many watching Saudi Arabia’s surge onto the tips of every football fan’s tongue will be instantly reminded of a similar far-off land throwing ungodly amounts of cash at European footballers vying for their final, generational wealth-establishing paycheck – the Chinese Super League.

Saudi Arabia’s surge vs the Chinese Super League

During the mid-to-late 2010s, several footballers departed European shores for the riches of the China. Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Hulk, Axel Witsel, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Yannick Carrasco, and Moussa Dembele were among them.

Now, it does not take a rocket scientist to realise there is a clear gulf in class between the players Saudi Arabia attracts versus the Chinese Super League. If China hired Michael Cera, Saudi Arabia’s brought in Leonardo DiCaprio.

It would be incredibly easy for football fans to scoff and throw a lazy, dismissive arm in the direction of the Saudi’s lofty ambitions. Some may question what the league can offer outside of money and a place to be successful in the twilight years. There is no trophy or glory that goes close to emulating even 10% of the prestige and stardom becoming a serial winner in Europe can. 

Not even money can replicate the sheer overwhelming relief and happiness a player must feel when they hoist the Champions League, Premier League, or La Liga high above their head, in front of a raucous crowd of feverish, fanatical supporters.

Saudi Arabia football, Ruben Neves, Karim Benzema
Ruben Neves (left) and Karim Benzema (right) will headline the Saudi Pro League.

And yet, Ruben Neves trading Wolverhampton Wanderers for Al Hilal at the prime age of 26, when his offerings to European football are far from dry, should be a warning sign across the footballing norms now. A player, courted by Barcelona as recently as last month, who is arguably one of the greatest players in Wolves history, heading to the Gulf in what should be his prime, indicates the league’s appeal extends beyond players closer to retirement than their debut. 

Another factor differentiating what’s occurring in Saudi Arabia, with the flash in a pan failures of the Chinese Super League, is the financial backing of the nation’s Private Investment Fund (PIF) – which also owns a majority stake in Newcastle United – purchasing a 75% stake in the league’s four biggest clubs – Al Nassr, Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, and Al Hilal.

There is definitely a non-sporting factor motivating the arrival of some of Europe’s biggest stars, one banked by the Saudi government’s investment arm. 

With Saudi Arabia’s median age below 30 and a push to host the 2030 World Cup boosted by Lionel Messi’s presence as a national tourism ambassador, the Saudi Pro League’s fight to global relevance should be viewed as a different beast to the one arising from China we still remember.

Picture of Kyle Robbins
Kyle Robbins
Kyle is a senior sports writer and producer at Only Sports who lives and breathes sport, with a particular burning passion for everything soccer, rugby league, and cricket. You’ll most commonly find him getting overly hopeful about the Bulldogs and Chelsea’s prospects. Find Kyle on LinkedIn.

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