If the football world has learned anything in the past few months, it’s that the Saudi Pro League is serious. Very serious.
In a year that has proven neither Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi have lost their allure, both continue to blaze a trail.
Despite both being well into their senior years, after holding an almost exclusive 15-year monopoly over the Ballon d’Or, the duo now tread differing paths.
In the case of Messi, having finally got his hands on a World Cup winners medal, the Argentine is now set to form a new era at Inter Miami in Major League Soccer.
Ronaldo meanwhile, wends a more unfamiliar journey after his move to the Saudi Pro League last January.
It is that move however, that has now set the wheels in motion in laying a new landscape in football.
The Saudi path
As Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland perched at the very summit of the world game, Ronaldo’s transfer to Al Nassr at the end of 2022 was derided by many.
Viewed by critics as the former Manchester United striker’s admission of his own decline, the move was nothing more than a pre-retirement switch motivated by money.
Cynics however, did not factor in that the Portuguese could be a trailblazer.
As Ronaldo said himself of the move last winter:
”In my opinion if they continue to do the work that they want to do here, for the next five years, I think the Saudi league can be a top five league in the world.”
Messi may have opted against a switch himself, but reports this week in the New York Times reveal an agreed contract worth around £20million over three years to be a commercial pitchman for The Kingdom.
Not bad money for a few social media posts, the odd advertisement and a positive word here or there.
Lure of riches
The fact the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia are willing to part with such sums simply for Messi’s commercial pull speaks volumes about their ambitions.
But not Messi exclusively.
Throw in the signings of Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante for Al Ittihad and likely a gamut of other top stars from Europe’s top clubs, and you have the makings of a movement.
Not content with their purchase of Newcastle United, interest in Formula 1 or the creation of LIV Golf, Saudi investment in elite sport shows no signs of slowing.
But it is those transfers to the Saudi Pro League that are dominating the newspaper columns around Europe this summer.
Ronaldo’s move alone has prompted a massive hike in broadcasting revenue and social media interest for Al Nassr.
Now many of their rivals want a piece of the action.
In the past week alone, Ruben Neves, Son Heung-Min, Edouard Mendy, Hakim Ziyech, Kalidou Koulibaly, Bernardo Silva and Matt Doherty were all linked with Saudi clubs.
All players ready to swap one of Europe’s top five leagues for Middle Eastern riches.
Allegations of sports washing are unlikely to go away with every big-money transfer that goes through, while some will point to the example of the Chinese Super League in the previous decade as a flash-in-the-pan.
Whatever opinion might be, the Saudi League is serious in its goal.
A league spoiled with wealth will always appeal and elite-level footballers could now form a steady queue to join.
Bernardo could be next.
- Any Saudi Club – 8/11
- PSG – 5/2
- Barcelona –