Expect more footballers to move to Saudi Arabia

The Roshn Saudi League is football’s new playground with lavish salaries and transfer fees.

Players like Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Roberto Firmino (Liverpool), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Ruben Neves (Wolves), Edouard Mendy (Chelsea) and Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea) have already signed contracts, with Liverpool duo Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, next in line.

Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr in December, recently claimed the Saudi League would be among the top five in the world and was better than the United States’ Major League Soccer.

His statement came a day after Lionel Messi’s grand unveiling as an Inter Miami player.

While some saw his remarks as a way to disparage his long-time rival, the Portuguese does have a point in that more of Europe’s top players are heading to Asia.

And, unlike the Chinese Super League boom, the Saudis have money to burn and are unlikely to implode, as it has the backing of the government.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which owns Newcastle, also controls the four largest teams in the league – Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, and Al Ahli.

It also provides funding for the rest of the clubs and can pay above the market rate.

Chinese clubs did not have the government backing them. But they spent £331 million during the 2016-17 winter transfer window, compared to the Premier League’s £215 million, on players like Carlos Tevez and Oscar.

It offered astronomical salaries. Ezequiel Lavezzi reportedly pocketed £798,000 a week for three years –and promptly retired, age 34, when his contract ended in 2019.

The big signings and salaries could not go on. Most club owners were in the property business, and a slowdown in the overheated real estate sector, and Covid-19, hastened the demise of several clubs, leading CSL to introduce a salary cap on foreign signings in 2021.

Several clubs went out of business, while Guangzhou FC, which won eight CSL titles and Asian Champions League trophies, lost its place in the top flight last December.

The Saudis are different and have already “bought over” golf, following the merger of its LIV Tour with the PGA.

It is now making a play in tennis and has held talks with Tennis Australia to buy over the United Cup, the first tournament of the season to bring the joint ATP and WTA event to the Kingdom.

The gravy train in football is unlikely to stop, and European clubs need to safeguard their interests.

Perhaps it is time for them to follow Spain’s lead and include buyout clauses in players’ contracts.

While it may not stop the exodus, earning higher transfer fees could be invested back into the game.

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