Over the years, but especially the past few months, Saudi Arabia has seen an influx of legendary footballers making the move from elite European clubs to showcase their talents in the Saudi Pro League (SPL).
The most common move for professionals nearing the ends of their career used to be heading to the US to play Major League Soccer. As we've seen with 2022 World Cup Winner Lionel Messi and his move to Inter Miami, the appeal of the North American league is still intact. But it's now becoming clear that the more popular choice is making the jump to Saudi Clubs like Al Shabab, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli.
Although football is already popular in Saudi Arabia, it doesn't yet compete on an international level in terms of standard-of-play or global recognition. The nation is set to host the Club World Cup in December, showcasing its commitment to promoting the sport within its borders. But they are also looking to co-host the prestigious men's international World Cup in 2030, alongside Egypt and Greece. Reports suggest that the SPL aims to sign up to 50 players from Europe's 'big five' divisions this summer in an attempt to improve the league's reach beyond the nation and they're already off to a great start.
But the question is, which players are signing Saudi contracts and why?
Cristiano Ronaldo was the first of the recent Europe-to-Saudi moves to put pen to paper, with a guaranteed $75 million-per-year contract with Al Nassr FC, who play at the highest level in Saudi Arabia. The contract also holds the potential to reach a total of roughly $200 million through commercial agreements with the club.
OFFICIAL: Cristiano Ronaldo signs for Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr as a free agent 🚨 pic.twitter.com/r83GJpvDlh— B/R Football (@brfootball) December 30, 2022
The 37 year old became a free agent after terminating his contract with Premier League side Manchester United. And after failing to receive any "serious offers" in Europe, he has joined Al Nassr to help promote the game in Saudi Arabia and receive a hefty payday for doing so.
Ronaldo has instead joined Al Nassr to help promote the game in Saudi Arabia
Cristiano Ronaldo has stated that the SPL needs to improve to become one of the world's top leagues, and with other top players signing Saudi contracts, they're certainly taking strides towards that goal.
Benzema has followed in his ex-teammates footsteps and signed with SPL club Al Ittihad on June 6th 2023.
The 35-year old striker leaves Real Madrid having won 24 trophies, including a joint-record five Champions League titles, as the second-highest scorer in the club's history (behind Ronaldo) and even won the Ballon D'or for his dominance throughout the 2022-23 season.
Under the guidance of former Tottenham Hotspur manager Nuno Espirito Santo, Al-Ittihad took the SPL title last season and clearly aims to continue their success, as the club offered Benzema a contract exceeding $100 million in value.
Benzema’s arrival is the most impactful transfer in the club’s history to date. It also marks another huge step in the Saudi Pro League’s journey to become one of football’s leading destinations for the world’s very best after its biggest season to date.
Saudi Pro League Announcement
After a remarkable seven-year tenure at Stamford Bridge, N'Golo Kante bids farewell to Chelsea. The French midfielder played a pivotal role in the Blues' successful campaigns, contributing to their triumphs in the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, and Club World Cup.
Now, Kante embarks on a new chapter alongside national teammate Karim Benzema, as they both join Saudi Arabia champions Al Ittihad.
Why are these players moving to Saudi Arabia?
So, in just the first few months of the 2023 transfer period, Cristiano Ronaldo made a move to the Middle East nation through a cost-free transfer, while Karim Benzema, the recipient of the Ballon d'Or award, opted against staying another season at Real Madrid and joined him in the country, along with N'Golo Kante and Ruben Neves.
According to UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, despite the departures of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Ruben Neves to Saudi Arabian clubs, there is no need for European football to fear player moves to the region.
However, the transfer rate doesn’t seem to be slowing any time soon. Reports suggest that up to five Chelsea players are poised to depart the Premier League side for the Saudi Pro League. Sergio Ramos, Bernardo Silva, and Heung-Min Son are among the players said to be receiving similar offers, along with rumours of Sergio Busquets and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joining them.
Clearly, there's a trend developing, but the question remains - why?
The first reason is obvious... Players making the move the the Saudi Pro League are receiving some of the most lucrative salaries in the history of the sport.
Both Benzema and Ronaldo will reportedly earn an astonishing $200 million a year, while Kante will be paid around $107 million. For most players making the move, it's likely that these contracts are the biggest incentive, as European clubs simply can't compete with the offers.
The Saudi league is offering unprecedented salary packages to players who still theoretically have some years left of playing at the top level. In doing so, it aims to prise them away from their current clubs some years before such a move would have been considered a ‘natural’ final chapter of their storied careers.
Abdullah al-Arian, 'Football in the Middle East' Author
As players that regularly fast during the month of Ramadan and have also completed Umrah, Kante, Benzema and are all practicing Muslims which could contribute to their desire to play in Saudi Arabia.
Other Muslim footballers, such as Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou have also been linked to moves to the kingdom.
For some Muslim players approaching the twilight of their careers, and maybe with young families who move around with them, the opportunity to experience and live in a Muslim nation is an attraction.
Mostafa Mohamed, Egyptian Journalist
Mohamed went on to say that Benzema’s decision to highlight the importance of his faith during his move to the SPL, “plays well with the audience in their new host country and region, as well as particular fans back in Europe.”
For many years, well before the signings of global superstars, renowned rivalries like the enduring clash between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal have captivated football fans in Saudi Arabia.
The SPL is actually very competitive and relatively well established in the region. It ranks highly amongst the leagues in Asia, probably only behind… Japan and South Korea. By centralising control over the most important clubs, the PIF can oversee the billions of newly invested dollars. [It can] coordinate the distribution of superstar players across the different teams and maximise the competitive balance in a way that suits the league's needs as it challenges the hegemony of Europe's elite competitions.
It's clear then, that the SPL is curating talent for a league that already has a large national following, and that could fuel existing rivalries and intense competition to take the league beyond the continental stage.
Which players do you think will follow suit and make the move to the SPL? And how big do you think Saudi Arabian football could become?
(Header Image Credit: Sipa USA - USA TODAY Sports)