Neymar during his presentation to Al-Hilal fans after signing from Paris Saint-Germain. Source: IMAGO/Power Sport Images/Strigner
Neymar during his presentation to Al-Hilal fans after signing from Paris Saint-Germain. Source: IMAGO/Power Sport Images/Strigner

The what, the why, and the who of Saudi Pro League

Football OlyBet 12.09.2023

The most absurd of transfer windows is now closed. Not quite business as usual for the heavyweights, since a new wealthy competitor emerged. The fight is very much on.

Remember the European Super League? On April 18th, 2021, twelve top clubs, known as “the founding members”, proposed a new league system that would supposedly make football better. “The best clubs. The best players. Every week,” their motto read. But just 24 hours later, nine of the twelve withdrew because of massive protests; the ESL was dead before it ever got going.

They really should have seen it coming. Although many of the top clubs are now far, far away from their blue-collar past, with most of the stands filled with “tennis crowd” and plenty of revenue flowing in from overseas, the following is still passionate. “Barcelona is our life, not your toy,” said a banner hung over Camp Nou.

Essentially, fans prevented their teams from creating a league that would have attracted the best players, the best coaches, and so on. But what if those same players and coaches were hired by clubs without such passionate fans and historic values? Say, clubs from Saudi Arabia, for example?

This summer might go down in history as the summer when football changed forever. The traditional clubs are still shackled to the system, but the new boys in town are not.

The what

Did you pay attention in geography class? When presented with the words “Middle East” and “rich country”, one might think of Bahrain, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates. The well-known travel destinations – Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha, to name a few – are indeed in those countries. The owners of Man City? Yes, from Abu Dhabi. The owners of PSG? Qatar.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile is the fifth-largest country in Asia, the largest in the Middle East, and home to more than 30 million people – but it feels that they have been flying under the radar. Known for the holy cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, and, well, being the second-largest oil producer in the world, they were just another mediocre representative of Asia at the World Cup for many football fans.

The local league certainly lacked stardust to be noteworthy. Each team could field up to eight foreigners, yet the most famous player to start the 2022/23 season was named … would it be Felipe Caicedo, Luiz Gustavo, or Ever Banega? Solid players for top European clubs once upon a time, but not world-class stars.

The Saudis first got people’s attention when PIF, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, became owners of Newcastle United in October 2021; overnight, Newcastle had a purse that no other club in history, ever, could compete with. But they played it smart, played it by the rules of the established elite. Newcastle has not spent outlandish amounts of money just to bring in A-listers. For that, the Saudis had another project in mind.

The why

When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in December 2022, it was seen as a one-off; a profitable swansong for a player who had broken unthinkable records and pushed limits where few others could have. But fast forward nine months and think again: in ten years, might we see his transfer as a first, a milestone that changed football?

In June, PIF acquired a quartet of rival Saudi Arabian clubs: Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, and Al Hilal. A transaction that could never happen with traditional clubs happened there because it is the new Wild West of football; over the summer, they spent nearly a billion. Al Hilal led the world with a net spend of 351.7 million euros, while Al Ahli was fourth with 181.7 and Al Nassr sixth with 165.1 million.

They have effectively gone out and spent money that was never available before, while creating a superleague in the process – at least when it comes to star names. Some declined, with Lionel Messi picking Inter Miami, Mohamed Salah staying true to Liverpool, and Kylian Mbappe turning down a ridiculous amount of money. However, most did not.

Sure, we have seen aging top players move to far-away leagues before, but never before has it been so methodical. They have either gone alone or in rare cases with a friend (or, if you are larger-than-life like Messi, with two friends), but never like this. Not even to China, who ran a similar money league about a decade ago. Wonder how that is going …

The who

In case you spent the summer away from civilization, a not-so-brief overview of what happened during past few months: Al Hilal, the big spenders, signed Neymar (PSG, 31), Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (Lazio, 28), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea, 32), Malcom (Zenit St Petersburg, 26), Ruben Neves (Wolverhampton, 26), Aleksandar Mitrovic (Fulham, 28), and Bono (Sevilla, 32).

Sadio Mane (Bayern Munich, 31), Aymeric Laporte (Man City, 29), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan, 30), Alex Telles (Man United, 30), and Seko Fofana (Lens, 28) will link up with Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr. Al Ahli signed Riyad Mahrez (Man City, 32), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea, 31), Franck Kessie (Barcelona, 26), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool, 31), Allan Saint-Maximin (Newcastle, 26), Roger Ibanez (Roma, 24), and Gabri Veiga (Celta Vigo, 21).

While Al Ittihad spent considerably less thanks to clever free transfers, they managed to get Karim Benzema (Real Madrid, 35), Fabinho (Liverpool, 29), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea, 32), Jota (Celtic, 24), and Luiz Felipe (Real Betis, 26) on board. Even some of the non-PIF clubs made big moves: Jordan Henderson (Liverpool, 33), Georginio Wijnaldum (PSG, 32), and Moussa Dembele (Lyon, 27) will line up for Al Ettifaq, while Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid, 30) joined Al Shabab. As for managers? Steven Gerrard, Jorge Jesus, Slaven Bilic

Many of those players are now considered pariahs by fans, but they had their reasons. The clubs and the PIF did too. Imagine this as the first step towards another top football league. What if, one day, another Super League will include not just teams from Europe, but from all over the world? Not playing by the rules can change the world. It happened in golf as we explained in the article here.


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