Why are Premier League stars moving to Saudi pro league?

Karim Benzema, the current Ballon d’Or winner, is one of the highest-profile players to move to Saudi Arabia.—Al Ittehad

The Saudi Pro League’s recent signings of Premier League stars, including Ruben Neves and potential recruit Edouard Mendy, have raised questions about the reasons behind this trend. Despite calls from Gary Neville to halt player transfers to Saudi Arabia for the sake of “integrity,” the flurry of deals in the past week suggests no signs of a pause.

On Friday, Ruben Neves, the 26-year-old captain of Wolverhampton Wanderers, joined Al-Hilal for a club-record fee of £47 million. This transfer marked a significant milestone for the Molineux club. Meanwhile, Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has emerged as the latest high-profile player linked to a move to the Saudi Pro League. Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and N’Golo Kante have already made similar moves, although they are considered marquee names in the latter stages of their careers. There were even rumours of Lionel Messi potentially joining the league before his transfer to the United States.

Notably, the Saudi Pro League’s interest is not limited to players nearing retirement. Players like Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech from Chelsea, as well as Thomas Partey from Arsenal, who are at the peak of their careers, have also attracted attention. These signings underline the league’s ambition to become one of the top five leagues globally.

Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, among others, has questioned the implications of this growing activity. In June, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which already owns Newcastle United, confirmed its acquisition of four prominent clubs in the country, including Al-Nassr, who signed Cristiano Ronaldo in December. While uncertainties persist regarding PIF’s stake in Chelsea’s ultimate owners, the private equity firm Clearlake Capital, club sources have dismissed direct involvement claims.

Neville has urged the Premier League to impose an immediate transfer embargo to safeguard the integrity of the game. He called for thorough scrutiny of the transactions and emphasized the need to examine Chelsea’s ownership structure and potential improper transfer dealings. Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules have prompted English clubs like Chelsea and Wolves to make strategic decisions in player recruitment to comply with the Premier League’s three-year limit on losses (£105 million).

Chelsea’s extensive spending of over £400 million in transfers last season and Wolves’ £46.1 million loss last year have made it challenging for both clubs to navigate FFP regulations. Wolves initially expected Neves to join Barcelona this summer, but the unexpected £47 million deal with Al-Hilal for the Portuguese midfielder exceeded their expectations.

While Uefa has not commented on the issue, multi-club ownership is permitted by the European governing body. The Premier League has a fair value assessment system in place to ensure that transactions, both commercial and transfer-related, occur at market value. A similar mechanism is facilitated by FIFA’s transfer matching system.

The Saudi Pro League aims to enhance its reputation and market presence through increased investment in football. The league boasts a long-established history and has garnered significant interest in recent years, hosting Formula 1 races, high-profile boxing bouts, and establishing LIV Golf. The controversial Newcastle takeover exemplifies Saudi Arabia’s desire to project itself globally through sport, with a joint 2030 World Cup bid planned alongside Egypt and Greece.

Although comparisons to the Chinese Super League have emerged due to its initial spending frenzy, the Saudi Pro League believes it operates on more sustainable foundations. The league’s senior sources emphasize its establishment in the 1970s, the genuine fan base of clubs, and its popularity as the top sport in the country. The involvement of Saudi Arabia’s PIF and their ownership of the top four clubs is viewed as a catalyst for transforming the league into a genuine business model. This shift aims to develop clubs, companies, and brands, altering the economy of football within Saudi Arabia.

The rise of the Saudi Pro League presents a challenge for European football, as it may result in the departure of players in their prime. The financial sustainability of European clubs may be impacted if they attempt to compete by matching the eye-watering salaries speculated in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the potential absence of world football’s biggest names in the Champions League could undermine its status as the pre-eminent club competition. However, Uefa President Aleksander Ceferin dismisses these concerns, suggesting that investment in academies and player development is essential for the growth of football, rather than relying on signings of ageing players.

As the Saudi Pro League continues to make waves in the transfer market, European clubs face the challenge of retaining top talent and preserving their financial stability within the constraints of regulations. The long-term impact of the league’s aggressive recruitment strategy remains to be seen, and its aspiration to become one of the world’s top leagues will require sustained investment and development.

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