The big story of this summer’s transfer window has been the rise in the number of football’s biggest stars leaving Europe to join the Saudi Pro League. It is no mystery to anybody on what is attracting these top players - money. It always seems to be about money.
It started when five-time Ballon d’Or winner and arguably the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, decided to move to Riyadh-based club, Al Nassr. At the time, the Portugal captain was a free agent after his contract at Manchester United was terminated with mutual consent following a public falling-out between the two parties. After the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in December 2022, he shocked the world by signing a deal with the Saudi club until at least 2025. Ronaldo’s contract at Al Nassr is reportedly worth a staggering $200 million every two years, which works out at £366 a minute!
Last month, ahead of the 2023-24 season, the Saudi Arabian ministry of sport announced that the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) would take control of the four largest teams in the Saudi Pro League (Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli). This has grown interest in the league and meant that there is a large amount of money available for these clubs to invest and attract established talent which then further encourages the growth of the sport in the country.
Karim Benzema, the current Ballon d’Or winner also decided to join Ronaldo in the Saudi League, choosing to sign for Jeddah-based Al Ittihad. Chelsea’s N’Golo Kanté, a few days later, also signed a contract with the club. Several more high-profile Premier League stars followed suit, with Wolves’ Rúben Neves, Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino and Chelsea’s Édouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly all making the move, with many others set to join throughout the rest of the transfer window. Neves is reportedly going to earn £300,000 a week with Benzema earning a similar amount to Ronaldo.
Not only is the Saudi league attracting players but it is also attracting coaches, with Steven Gerrard signing a contract to become the head coach at Al-Ettifaq.
The future of football and the role that the Saudi Pro League will have in the sport is still unsure. Many will be intrigued about how these players will settle into the league and how well these players, many of whom are closer to the end of their career, perform in a league the world knows little about.