Clubs in Europe could breathe a collective sigh of relief following the closure this week of the transfer window in the Saudi Pro League, whose huge spending over the summer was topped only by the English Premier League.
The window shut late Thursday, six days after the market closed in Europe’s leading leagues, and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah stayed put at Anfield despite reports that Jeddah club Al-Ittihad had offered £150 million ($189 million) for the Egyptian superstar.
SAUDI TRANSFER WINDOW SHUTTING BRINGS RELIEF IN EUROPE
However, Liverpool will surely have to brace themselves for further approaches from Saudi Arabia in the next window for the 31-year-old, whose current contract runs until 2025.
The last three months have seen reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, Brazilian superstar Neymar, Riyad Mahrez, Fabinho, N’Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Ruben Neves and Jordan Henderson all leave major European leagues to go to Saudi Arabia.
They have followed Cristiano Ronaldo, who moved at the turn of the year to sign for Al-Nassr.
That list is far from exhaustive, with analysis by Deloitte’s Sports Business Group saying 37 players moved to Saudi Arabia from either England, Spain, Italy, Germany or France.
It is not just older players either, with 21-year-old Spain prospect Gabri Veiga leaving Celta Vigo for Al-Ahli.
“It is clear that European football is losing out,” Manchester City and Spain midfielder Rodri said this week.
“We need to somehow stop the exodus of talent because at first it seemed like it was just players at the end of their careers going, but now it is younger players too.”
Deloitte said Saudi clubs had splashed $957 million in the window, ahead of any other league apart from the Premier League, whose spending reached almost $2 billion according to a FIFA report. But it may well soon catch up with England’s numbers.
– No danger? –
The Pro League has been buying players in a revamp as part of the country’s ambitious economic diversification plan.
The spending has mostly been fuelled by four teams now owned by the Saudi government’s oil-funded Public Investment Fund.
Those are Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr from Riyadh, reigning champions Al-Ittihad and their Jeddah rivals Al-Ahli.
The fees and wages being offered could have a serious impact for previously all-powerful teams in Europe who will not be able to compete.
Sources close to Neymar’s deal at Al-Hilal said his salary would be around 100 million euros per season, far beyond what any club in Europe would realistically offer.
Former Liverpool star Mane left Bayern Munich for Al-Nassr for a reported 40 million euros a year plus bonuses.
At those figures, the exodus of leading players from Europe to the Gulf kingdom will surely continue, but European executives have dismissed fears of the impact that could have on their competitions.
“I don’t think there is a danger,” said Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari president Nasser al-Khelaifi, also the chairman of the powerful European Club Association.
“We believe in ourselves. We have the best competition in the world, the biggest clubs in the world, the best players in the world,” he added, with a reference to the Champions League.
– Life-changing figures –
Many more players, particularly those over 30, will not be able to resist the sums on offer.
Atletico Madrid and France star Antoine Griezmann turned down a possible move to Saudi Arabia according to French reports, but he hinted that he may go if the chance arises again.
“I will have to think about these offers if they come in one day,” the 32-year-old said this week.
“The figures are huge and can change your family’s life.”
In contrast to Griezmann, England’s Jordan Henderson has been heavily criticised in his home country for suggesting in an interview with The Athletic that his move to Steven Gerrard-coached Al-Ettifaq was not motivated by money.
“I wanted something that would excite me,” he said.
“I know Stevie really wanted me. I know the club really wanted me to go and they wanted us to try and build over the next few years — something that is here to stay and be one of the best leagues in the world.”
Indeed, Neymar believes the Saudi league might already have overtaken at least one of Europe’s major players.
“Football there is the same. The ball is round, there are goalposts, and looking at the names of players who have gone to the Saudi league, I don’t know if it might be better than the French league,” he said while on duty with Brazil this week.