They say that money cannot buy happiness, but this summer has shown that either no one told the Saudis, or they have little time for English proverbs.
Two years ago the summer transfer window was headlined by PSG’s remarkable acquisition of Messi, Ramos and Donnarumma, and Ronaldo’s return home to Manchester United; while the 22/23 season saw Haaland’s move to City and Todd Boehly’s €600 million spending spree. The 2023 summer transfer window, however, has been dominated by a much more far-reaching development: the Exodus of top-quality players from Top 5 European leagues to the Saudi Pro League.
This sea change in the international transfer market can be traced to two key developments:
1. Ronaldo’s high-profile move to Riyadh club Al-Nassr following his acrimonious departure from Manchester United, thereby bringing substantial media coverage to the top flight of Saudi football, and making at least one Saudi club a household name for the first time.
2. The acquisition of 75% stakes in the ‘Big Four’ Saudi clubs (Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Hilal) by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, granting them access to unprecedented funds with which to finance their ambitious transfer plans.
Having acquired both wealth and the attention of the international media, and capitalising on the need by top European clubs to offload players to stay compliant with FFP regulations, Saudi Arabian football clubs have acquired such high-profile talent as Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, former Champions League winners Edouard Mendy and N’Golo Kante, treble winner Riyad Mahrez, and Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson.
Indeed, an early trickle of ageing stars making the move to seek a final payday before retirement (see: Ronaldo, Benzema, Kante) soon developed into a flood of top European talent, many still in the best years of their career, some even in their mid-20s (Milinkovic-Savic is 28, Saint-Maximin and Ruben Neves are both 26, and Celtic’s Jota is only 24), attracted by the eye-watering salaries offered with great media fanfare, and the chance to play alongside their childhood idols.
Saudi clubs have even made approaches (though ultimately unsuccessful) for Messi and Mbappé, widely regarded as the current and future best players in the world.
Many see this as the foundation for the Saudi Pro League to compete with and eventually supplant the European Top Five leagues- some welcome this, many fear it. However, your views on it matter little, for the Saudi League will fail, its momentum will run out, and a balance will be restored soon enough, probably within a couple of seasons. The Ghosts of Football Past show this to be little other than the latest iteration in a long line of ‘fad’ leagues; the Fundamental Laws of Football declare that it simply cannot succeed.
The first reason why the project won’t succeed is that previous attempts to use the lure of money to create a support base for ‘new’ leagues have failed. Many times over. The MLS has used this tactic for years to attract ageing superstars to play out the final years of their careers, even implementing the controversial ‘designated player’ rule to allow teams to break the salary cap to sign talent from Europe’s leagues and dish out lucrative contracts. And the MLS has attracted a far higher calibre of players than Saudi Arabia thus far: Premier League icons Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Thierry Henry; World Cup winner David Villa; legends such as Beckham, Bale, and Ibrahimovic; and even the rivals for the ‘GOAT’ title, Pele and Messi.
Nevertheless, the effect of this has primarily been domestic- the popularity of football in America has soared and the MLS is more popular there than ever, but it has hardly come to challenge the European leagues, or even the American ones (it was only in 2022 that an MLS team won the Concacaf Champions League for the first time). The MLS is still a subject of derision among fans in the UK as a symbol of American ineptitude at football, a source of bad chants and silly team names.
The Chinese Super League also tried to execute the same formula, luring many players away from Europe, and, like the Saudi League now, caused concern with its attraction of not just ageing legends, but several players in their prime, most notably Oscar from Chelsea, who was tempted by a $400k-a-week contract. Tevez, Ramires, Hulk and Fellaini played in China, and, also like the Saudi league, more average players made the change, including Arnautovic and Jackson Martinez. However, this too failed to live up to expectations, and even before Chinese government legislation limiting clubs’ spending power was introduced, the momentum was gone: the Chinese league is now a complete nonentity.
Clubs have tried this too: for example Japan side Vissel Kobe’s signing of Iniesta, or Anzhi Makhachkala’s acquisition of Eto’o, Roberto Carlos, Willian and manager Guus Hiddink. These too have ended in failure. The simple fact is, and remains, that no league or club can buy itself the real currencies of football, the most vital assets there are: support, fans, relevance and prestige. These are acquired through trophies and titles, long histories, through a connection to a community, whether geographical or otherwise, through the often arbitrary but nonetheless necessary designation of being a ‘big club’ or ‘top league’.
Manchester City fans who have had to sit through endless chants of “Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that” from far-less-wealthy Villa and Forest know that Gulf money doesn’t buy you respect, that can only be achieved by a combination of trophies and time. Arguably it is only with this season’s treble that they have come to be properly respected, a full 15 years after their takeover. No matter how successful Ajax are in European competitions, or how many top prospects are produced by Benfica and Porto, the Eredivisie and Primeira Liga will not be considered a Top Five league in the near future, even if Ligue 1 is consistently terrible. Bolton will always be a bigger club than Bournemouth, even if one has Premier League money and the other is barely scraping by. Unfortunately for the USA, China, and now Saudi Arabia, footballing success is built on near-geological timescales, which are so foreign to the instant-change expectations of the CEOs, Principals, Sheikhs and Princes that fund their colossal transfer sprees. That is why they are built to fail.
Reason number two why the Saudi League will fail is one of the Fundamental Laws of Football: football fans support teams; not players. This is an unalterable, immutable fact. Sure, we all have our favourite players- most people have a view on the Messi-Ronaldo debate, we all commit the sin of falling in love with loan players, and we occasionally watch players we loved even after they’ve left the club. I know I was pleased to see Willian doing well for Fulham after enjoying watching him play for Chelsea, and I fervently hope Azpilicueta succeeds at Atletico Madrid. However, the ultimate truth is that I will not become a Fulham or Atletico fan, no matter how much I love Willian and Azpi. I support Chelsea, and I will continue to do so. I hoped Aubameyang would fail at Arsenal, and cheered for him when he came to Chelsea. I argued Mount and Havertz’s case for years, and now they’re gone I will fully admit they’re rubbish, and I watched in glee as United and Arsenal paid exorbitant fees for our average players.
Indeed much ridicule is given to those very few ‘plastic’ fans who do support a player regardless of which club they play for. American streamer IShowSpeed, whose obsession with Ronaldo has made him a minor celebrity, is a prominent example: very few would regard him as a ‘proper’ football fan. He is emblematic of a tiny minority.
So, if Saudi Arabia think signing Ronaldo and Benzema will make Real Madrid fans convert to Al-Nassr or Al-Ittihad followers, they are sorely mistaken. If they think signing Kante, Mendy and Koulibaly from Chelsea will suddenly make me abandon the club I’ve supported all my life, then they’ve wasted their money. Signing players, even fan favourites, is not a viable route to creating a fanbase. If anything, it just makes fans annoyed that these clubs ‘took’ their players.
Let’s illustrate this with some examples. Many of our generation grew up in awe of Messi and/or Ronaldo. Regardless of which team we support, we sat in reverence watching their highlight reels, and played at school pretending that one day we could be as good as them. But if we are honest with ourselves: how many PSG or Al-Nassr games did we actually watch last season? Maybe their respective debuts as a matter of interest to see the Mbappé-Neymar-Messi link up, or Ronaldo in a yellow shirt. Maybe the 30-second highlight reel of Ronaldo’s first hat trick in Saudi Arabia, or that long free kick he scored. But ultimately did it really increase the viewership of Ligue 1 or the Saudi League? Could you name which clubs were relegated from those leagues? Perhaps the most any of us heard about Ligue 1 was Will Still’s much-publicised 19-game unbeaten run (did you know that Reims were fined £22,000 each game because he hasn’t got his coaching license yet?). If even the two titans of our generation can’t attract consistent attention to another league, then why do we think Saint-Maximin or Ruben Neves can?
On a practical level, there is only so much football that each person can watch and pay attention to. In the UK, many people already support two clubs- usually a Premier League one, and a much more local one. Some even play for an amateur or 5-a-side team. Add to this European competitions and international football and there is already almost too much to properly keep track of. Most people simply don’t have the time or energy to follow another league.
The final reason why the Saudi league will crumble is its failure to consider the bottom. With all the top signings going to the Big Four (and to a lesser extent Gerrard’s Ettifaq), they have neglected the other 13 teams in the league, who don’t have huge funds and will be playing next season with very weak squads. In other words, the competitiveness of the league will be very poor. While it may be briefly entertaining to watch Al-Hilal hammer Al-Raed 8-0 every week, this will very quickly become dull. What distinguishes the top leagues is their competitiveness: every one of the Premier League’s 20 teams has great quality and can produce shock results, the same goes for La Liga. It is competitiveness that leads to the consensus view that these two are better leagues to watch than the Bundesliga or Ligue 1, yet even these two are lightyears ahead of where the Saudi League will be next season. It is only if all 18 teams can have good players and when there are more 2-2 draws than 5-0 thumpings that it could have a plausible claim on watchability. However, this is unlikely to happen soon- not even the PIF wants to spend the money to finance 18 squads of £30m players on its own.
Another instance of ignoring the bottom is the Saudi League’s neglect of talent production and scouting. French clubs have extensive infrastructure for youth development and scouting in Africa; Spanish and Portuguese clubs have strong links with Latin America; English clubs have outreach centres all across the British Isles. This is how they make their operations both competitive and commercially viable: rather than having to shell out £60m for a mid-range 20-something midfielder, they promote a promising youngster from the academy essentially for free, and lots of these turn into world-class players. Brighton have become notorious for acquiring talented players for next to nothing from clubs in Ecuador or Japanese university teams and selling them to big clubs for tens of millions.
It’s how European clubs will always have a larger supply of quality players than spots on the team sheet, and how they can afford to offload so many top players to Saudi Arabia or the USA and remain just as good, if not better, than before.
Academies and scouting networks are how European clubs can often field two or three full sides of quality players. Yet Saudi clubs don’t seem to have been spending money in this field. For all the managers they’ve been targeting- how many top scouts have they poached from European clubs? How many academies have they opened? Have they sent scouts to the Malaysian 2nd division yet, or at least developed the algorithms to tell them it’s worth looking there? Instead of looking to make their operation self-sustainable they are opting for short-term investments, making their league dependent on Europe, an approach which simply can’t function for more than maybe five years before the money runs out, or UEFA impose restrictions on selling players outside of Europe.
The moves being made by the Saudi Pro League this summer are significant- it’s more money than ever before, more players moving than ever before, and it is certainly right that many are considering it as the biggest threat yet to the dominance of European leagues. But ultimately it is doomed to fail- doomed because every such venture has failed before, doomed because respect, not money, is the currency in which football is conducted, doomed because fans stick to teams not players, doomed because there is already more than sufficient football to watch, and doomed because it is built on a short-term investment model that can never be self-sustaining or competitive. The Saudi League will blossom and have its moment in the sun, but it will also wither and die imminently, certainly within a couple of seasons. I wonder whether many, if any, will be tuning into the Al-Nassr versus Al-Ittihad showdown the same week as the Champions League Final…