When Al Nassr announced the signing of Manchester United icon Cristiano Ronaldo on New Year’s Eve, few would have expected the influx of talent to Saudi Arabia that followed.
Ronaldo remains football royalty and his star status could only ever be eclipsed by Lionel Messi, but the Portuguese was hardly a man in demand at the time. Fast forward seven months, the Saudi Pro League has become the most discussed topic in the summer transfer window.
The £500 million outlay on new signings is only matched by Europe’s top three leagues, and the highest spending club, Al Hilal, are rivalled only by Arsenal in terms of expenditure on new arrivals.
But who are the clubs making these signings, who are all the names that have moved to the new hotbed of multi-million-dollar deals and where does this unprecedented level of spending leave them ahead of the new season?
NEWCASTLE OWNER INVOLVEMENT
The half-a-billion-and-counting spending spree is led by the Public Investment Funds (PIF), owners of Newcastle United, who have acquired a 75 percent stake in each of Saudi Arabia’s top four clubs; Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad. Between them, those four clubs have won nine of the last ten league titles.
Then there is Al Ettifaq, who are in the process of being acquired by another state-backed organization, reportedly SABIC (Saudi Basic Industries Company), and have also spent big this summer.
Al Ittihad, as reigning champions, qualified to play in December’s FIFA Club World Cup which will take place in their hometown of Jeddah.
Thus, the PIF was quick to help their bolster their ranks with Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, midfield lynchpin N’Golo Kante, Liverpool anchorman Fabinho as well as Celtic winger Jota. This array of stars will be coached by former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur boss Nuno Espirito Santo who led the club to the title last term.
ASIA’S BEST CLUB
With Al Hilal having reached the final of the last Club World Cup in Morocco, losing to Real Madrid 5-3, only winning that title would do for Al Ittihad in front of their loud and demanding home fans. For Al Hilal, a season that would be considered a massive success for most clubs around the world was deemed a complete failure.
They finished third in the league, reached the AFC Champions League final in addition to the FIFA Club World Cup silver medals, but Al Hilal are Asia’s most successful club side; they boast four Champions League titles and have reached the final of the continental competition five times since 2014.
This is the context in which to understand their £152m spree on Wolves captain Ruben Neves, Lazio’s Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Malcom. They are still in the market for a striker, and a winger. Victor Osimhen, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Bernardo Silva and even Neymar and Kylian Mbappe have been approached in recent weeks.
Al Nassr believed they would walk to the league title following their acquisition of Ronaldo, but even the Portuguese’s 14 goals in half a season could not stop them from finishing three points behind Al Ittihad.
In come Marcelo Brozovic and Seko Fofana to revamp their central midfield, Sadio Mane to share the attacking burden with the ageing Ronaldo and Alex Telles to deliver the crosses for his former Manchester United teammate.
TWO LIVERPOOL CAPTAINS
Al Ahli, champions as recently as 2015-16, suffered an incredibly poor campaign a couple of seasons ago that led to their first-ever relegation. They bounced back at the first time of asking and have been on a mission to return to their traditional status as a national powerhouse.
The names to help them achieve this mission: Edouard Mendy, the world’s best goalkeeper in 2021, Roma’s Roger Ibanez and former Leeds United full-back Ezgjan Alioski in defence, Barcelona’s Franck Kessie in midfield and the mouthwatering trio of Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin in attack. Not bad for a team fresh off competing in the second tier.
The outsiders are Steven Gerrard’s Al Ettifaq. Not one of the nation’s big guns, but a historic club that has in 1983-84 won the league title undefeated before slipping into mid-table around the turn of the century then relegation and a few seasons away from the spotlight.
This season, they will be captained by Jordan Henderson, with former Celtic men Jack Hendry and Moussa Dembele at either end of the pitch.
A title challenge might be a step too far, but breaking into the top four will be a massive achievement for the two former Liverpool captains.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
With neighbouring Qatar having already hosted the World Cup in 2022, building one of the top leagues in the world has become Saudi Arabia’s primary football objective as part of their national Vision 2030 to transform the country and they are sparing no expense to achieve that.
But whether in five years from now the Saudi experiment will be seen as a success or go the way the Chinese one did a few years ago remains to be seen.
Buying big, albeit often ageing, players is a good place to start as MLS has shown in the past, but if the Saudi Pro League is to remain relevant a decade later, it will have to invest in sustainable development in other areas including infrastructure, grassroots and marketing of the league to name a few.