When Cristiano Ronaldo first inked his deal with the Saudi Pro League, his detractors were quick to hit the whole range of laughter emojis. Social media, the press, ex-players turned pundits, pretty much everyone thought that his career was over, moving to a second-rate league akin to a retirement home for footballers.
Now, the picture looks just that little bit different. The laughter has died down, and there is genuine worry. The landscape of footballing power is shifting, with European hegemony now clearly at risk.
Last summer, Saudi clubs spent a staggering £700 million plus on new players. Some of the biggest names of football, still at the peak of their powers, left Europe behind for pastures new.
6 Ballon d’Or vs. 0
The Saudi Pro League features two players who have won the Ballon d’Or a total of six times. The Premier League, the so-called best league in the world? Grand total: 0.
The most recent all-world addition to Al-Ittihad is Karim Benzema, former Real Madrid legend and multiple Champions League winner. Even at 35, he’s still an elite player. He won his Ballon d’Or in 2022, after all.
The other name is a must-know for anyone who even pretends to be a football fan. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the undoubtedly greatest players in the history of the game, left Manchester United behind to start afresh in Saudi Arabia.
Many called it a gimmick, a laughable final attempt for an ego-driven star to stay relevant, and feed his coffers. His footballing prowess was now a thing of the past, they claimed, and he would soon fade into retirement.
Of course, we all know that Cristiano Ronaldo is still very much at it. In his last seven international matches, for example, he’s scored nine goals. In his last two qualifiers, he’s scored four. He may not be the tricky winger he once was, but he still knows where the goal is.
Leicester City Legend and CL Winner
When Leicester completed the ultimate sporting fairytale and beat the ‘big clubs’ to the Premier League trophy, most people talked about Vardy’s epic goal-scoring exploits.
And sure, they were integral to the league winners. But the footballing connoisseurs, the hipster analysts, all knew who the true motor of the club was: 5’6 N’Golo Kanté.
He’s now with Karim Benzema at Al-Ittihad, and at just 32, he still has plenty to give. He’s a midfield dynamo, work-rate maestro, and defensive genius. Europe misses him.
He was once lauded as the ‘next Ballon d’Or Winner’. It seemed guaranteed, the way he skipped around players with ease and a smile on his face. Samba personified, a Ronaldinho-esque entertainer.
It never quite happened, but he’s still a genius. Neymar’s career has been marred by controversy, his play-acting hated by many, and his promise never quite fulfilled. Injury and perhaps his choice to sign for PSG have prevented him from becoming a truly world-class player.
But he’s still a mercurial talent. When he’s on, he’s on. There’s not a player on the planet who can do the things he can. And now he’s doing those things in Saudi Arabia, not Barcelona or PSG.
They’re not quite the world-class draws, no Ballon d’Or winners, or true household names. But they’re still talents of an epic level, all in their prime, previously playing (and often starting) for the top clubs of Europe.
Now they’re in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps more than the one-off star signings, it’s these players that truly emphasise that this league is a true threat to the old-school boys of Europe. Real Madrid, Barcelona, ManU, and even Manchester City may not have the drawing power they once had.
For example, many clubs wanted to sign Yassine Bounou after his stellar World Cup with Morocco. He went to Al-Hilal instead. Aleksandar Mitrovic was still banging in the goals for Fulham, now he’s in sunnier climes.
At 28, he had interest from the main clubs in Europe. Otavio decided to opt for Al-Nassr instead, choosing to spend his peak years outside of the traditional powers. Aymeric Laporte, still an international for his country, is another player in his 20s who opted for Saudi Arabia.
There are many, many others. Gabri Veiga, Ruben Neves, Koulibaly, Mendy, Henderson, Brozovic, teams are full of star players. And star-name managers, like Steven Gerrard.
Who Will Follow?
The transfer window is almost more exciting than the league because fans will wonder who else will leave the biggest leagues in the world to ply their trade with the up-and-comers.
One thing’s for sure: Saudi Arabia is here to play for keeps. They have infinite funds to draw players, and as we all know, money talks. If you’re offering someone the opportunity to build generational wealth, it’s not difficult to see why they’d leave.
And once you reach a critical mass of top players, can you call the league irrelevant or a retirement home?