How Saudi football clubs are posing a challenge to European supremacy

Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr in the middle of the 2022-23 season has proven to be a game-changer, with many European stars, still in their prime — including Karim Benzema who was accorded an extravagant welcome at Al Ittihad — making their way to the Saudi pro league.
| Photo Credit: AFP

With Saudi Arabian clubs offering ludicrous deals and managing to attract star players, global attention is diverting from European leagues.

Saudi pro league club Al-Hilal made French club Paris Saint Germain an offer of a mind-blowing €300 million for its talismanic forward Kylian Mbappe last week. Though the move is highly unlikely, with reports suggesting that Mbappe has refused to negotiate, it could have been the most expensive in the game’s history, surpassing the €222 million PSG paid to FC Barcelona for Neymar Jr. While Mbappe’s future remains uncertain, the offer is a strong statement from the Saudi club and the Saudi league: they intend to challenge European supremacy over club football.

Europe is seen as the undisputed ruler of club football, be it popularity, telecast figures or economics. The UEFA Champions League was, and is, considered to be the most prestigious trophy a football club could win. While European national teams don’t hold a clear superiority, it remains an unwritten rule that players from other continents have to prove themselves in Europe to gain stardom.

Chinese clubs tried to challenge this system when Shanghai SIPG signed the Brazilian Oscar from Chelsea at a ripe age of 25 with an annual salary around €30m. But the Chinese revolution ended as quickly as it began as the government came in the way, bringing in regulations, like salary caps.

But the case of Saudi clubs is different. They have the state’s backing. Saudi League made the first ripple when Al Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United in December 2022 on a two-and-a-half-year deal estimated to be worth around €200 million, bringing with him a huge fan following and global broadcast deals. But the move was not too surprising as it was common for European stars to spend the twilight of their careers outside Europe where leagues are less challenging, and wages are high.

David Beckham popularised this trend with his move to LA Galaxy in the U.S. Major League Soccer, where the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic — though he came back to Europe and helped AC Milan reclaim the scudetto — and Wayne Rooney followed. Spanish midfield maestro Andreas Iniesta moved to Japan after his European career while his partner in crime Xavi chose to hang up his boots in Qatar.

What we see now with Saudi is different. It is not players wishing to ride out their careers who are making the move. Following Ronaldo, 35-year-old Karim Benzema made the move to Al Ittihad this summer, with a three-year deal that could earn him €200 million annually and received an extravagant reception during his presentation. He easily had the form and physique to continue at the top of Real Madrid’s attacking trident for at least a year.

Al Ittihad followed this up by bringing in 32-year-old defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante, adored by fans for his innocent smile and deadly defending, from Chelsea. Al Hilal convinced 32-year-old Chelsea defender Kalidou Koulibaly, 26-year-old Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves and 28-year-old Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic Savic to join their ranks.

Al Ahli signed Chelsea goalkeeper 31-year-old Eduard Mendy, Manchester City’s 32-year-old Riyad Mahrez and Liverpool’s 31-year-old Roberto Firmino. Firmino’s former teammate Sadio Mane’s has also moved to Al Nassr, while their former captain Jordan Henderson has signed for Al Ettifaq, which will be managed by Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard from this season.

Two-time treble-winning manager Pep Guardiola has said that Saudi spending has changed the transfer market. “Saudi Arabia has changed the market. A few months ago, when Cristiano [Ronaldo] was the only one to go, no one thought this many top, top players would play in the Saudi league,” he said. “There will be more and that’s why clubs need to be aware of what is happening,” he warned.

Splashing out extravagant money season after season is not new in Europe. But this trend is also linked to West Asia as it is clubs with Arab links that are leading this. Manchester City owned by City Football Group under Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice President and deputy Prime Minister of UAE, and PSG owned by the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, through Qatar Sports Investments, do not hold back from breaking the bank in pursuit of exciting talents.

They have been accused of violating Financial Fair Play regulations but have so far avoided any major punishment. But there is some sort of financial restriction for European clubs, which the Saudi league doesn’t have. The league is controlled by the government, which also owns 75% of four major clubs — Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad — with all four making waves in the transfer market, through the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Vision 2030

The Saudi government considers these clubs as part of its vision 2030, ‘a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world,’ which gives sports an integral role. The PIF also acquired a majority share in English club Newcastle United in October 2021. The club went from 11th in the 2021-22 season to a Champions League spot-securing fourth in 2022-23.

Managing to gather top names together will make the league interesting, but it is yet to be seen how a single league can challenge the European heritage enriched by the Champions League. But it might be easier as UEFA is planning to enforce major changes in the tournament structure. Add to it the hectic schedule forcing players to play without adequate rest, risking injuries and increasing racist issues with no stern response or action, money might not be the only factor tempting players to move outside Europe.

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