The summer of 2023 will go down as the one where Saudi Arabia made a sensational entry into the football transfer market. Stars, not always at the end of their careers, have joined Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, four clubs (out of the 18 in the league) owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), a tool of the Gulf monarchy to extend its soft power, among others. Back on a mercato like no other.
How much has Saudi Arabia invested?
According to the specialized site Transfermarkt, €956 million was spent by Saudi clubs on the purchase of players this summer, including €835 million by the "big four" mentioned above. A total higher than most major European championships, including Germany (€748 million), Italy (€857 million) and France (€907 million). The Premier League remains in its world: 2.8 billion euros. However, these figures relate only to transfer fees. Where Saudi Arabia has done well is on wages.
The craziest figures are circulating about the incomes of Neymar, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Some sources mention 100 M€ / year for each of them others speak of double. One thing seems certain, they are the three highest paid footballers in the world. Players a little less rated (Sadio Mané, Marcelo Brozovic, Riyad Mahrez ...) would receive between 25 and 45 million € per year. In France, only Kylian Mbappé (about €72 million/year) and Ousmane Dembélé (€20 million/year) compete.
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Who plays with whom and in which club?
As has been said, Saudi recruitment has mainly been concentrated among the four clubs owned by the PIF. Al-Ettifaq and Al-Shabab have also splurged. For the rest, one can always find one or two names known here and there, such as Jason Denayer in Al-Fateh or Grzegorz Krychowiak and Karl Toko Ekambi in Abha.
Al-Hilal: Bono, Kalidou Koulibaly, Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Malcom, Neymar, Aleksandar Mitrovic
Al-Ahli: Edouard Mendy, Merih Demiral, Roger Ibanez, Gabri Veiga, Franck Kessié, Riyad Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maximin, Roberto Firmino
Al-Nassr: David Ospina, Aymeric Laporte, Alex Telles, Marcelo Brozovic, Seko Fofana, Talisca, Otavio, Sadio Mané, Cristiano Ronaldo
Al-Ittihad: Luiz Felipe, Fabinho, N'Golo Kanté, Jota, Karim Benzema
Al-Ettifaq: Marcel Tisserand, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Demaray Gray, Moussa Dembélé
Al-Shabab: Romain Saïss, Gustavo Cuéllar, Ever Banega, Yannick Carrasco, Habib Diallo
Which championship was the main provider?
Saudi Arabia's favourite shop is in England. 13 Premier League players joined the Saudi Pro League this summer, including three players from Liverpool (Fabinho, Henderson and Firmino) and Chelsea (Mendy, Koulibaly and Kanté). This was followed by Serie A and Ligue 1, which each saw 7 players go into exile in the Arabian Peninsula. La Liga, it has let slip 6 elements in Saudi D1. Finally, only one Bundesliga player has made the big jump, but not the least: Sadio Mané, vice Ballon d'Or 2022, from Bayern Munich.
Is there a limit of foreign players per club?
Yes. So far, one Saudi Pro League club to register, at most, eight players of foreign nationality. But it is a safe bet that the limit will soon be revised upwards, or even removed. Portuguese winger Jota, recruited at the beginning of July by Al-Ittihad, was not registered in the league, while he cost nearly € 30 million. Rumour has it that he is a collateral victim of this settlement. Complete freedom to build a workforce would only increase opportunities for Saudi Arabia. Bad news for Europe. "We will have to control this talent drain in one way or another," warned Rodri, Manchester City's Spanish midfielder.
An ephemeral or sustainable Eldorado?
In the past, other countries (China, Russia, the United States...) have tried to penetrate the world of football with millions. But never before has a championship brought together so many great players in such a short time. While some appear to be on the decline, others will still last. Neymar remains the leader of the Brazilian selection, as Ronaldo for Portugal, Mané for Senegal, and Brozovic (Croatia) and Laporte (Spain) are executives with major nations.
It is certain that in the future, many players will go to Saudi Arabia," Spain coach Luis De La Fuente predicted earlier this month. "In the future, it will happen more and more," said Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola. With Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, head of the PIF, to sign checks almost blank, the Saudi championship has a major asset (money) to last.
In France, Canal+ acquired the broadcasting rights. Two questions remain: can Saudi Arabia, in the short term, attract younger stars like Mbappe, Bellingham or Haaland? And can it generate enough enthusiasm and competitiveness to overshadow Europe and its historical weight? Only time will tell.