Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to Football?

We dive into Saudi Arabia’s impressive transformation as a footballing nation and how the country could change the face of the sport forever.

They offered Mbappe a salary of £605 million

The story of football in Saudi Arabia has been one of controversy, evolution and money, both on local and global stages. 

It was during the 40s that football was really introduced to the Saudi Arabian landscape.

From informal neighbourhood matches to fervent competitions, the game quickly captured the hearts of communities across the nation.

Since then, the country has become a catalyst for the economic overhaul of football. However, it has still maintained its aims to turn itself into the new home of football.

In a desperate urge to lure players from the world’s top leagues, Saudi Arabia is quickly redefining itself as a sporting trailblazer. 

However, what elements have contributed to this transformation? Is it detrimental to the wider scope of the sport?

And, have these aspects been birthed from good intentions, or is the attraction of Saudi Arabia simply money-motivated?   

A Simple History

Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to Football?

In 1956, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) was established, breathing life into organised football and propelling its growth.

SAFF’s affiliation with FIFA in 1956 and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1972 laid the groundwork for a new era.

1976 witnessed the groundbreaking birth of the Saudi Professional League (SPL).

Renowned for its fierce competition and widespread popularity, the league emerged as a coveted stage for local and international football talents.

The 80s and 90s ushered international acclaim for Saudi Arabian football.

The “Green Falcons,” the national team, etched their name in history by clinching their maiden Gulf Cup of Nations title in 1984.

Although, a pivotal moment arrived in 1986 when Saudi Arabia graced the FIFA World Cup in Mexico for the first time.

A cascade of World Cup qualifications ensued, with Saudi Arabia’s national team securing their spot on the global stage in subsequent tournaments — 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2006.

The zenith of their accomplishments materialised in 1994 as they stormed into the Round of 16, making an invaluable mark for an ‘Asian’ nation.

The prowess of Saudi clubs like Al-Hilal, Al Nassr, and Al-Ittihad reverberated across the Middle East and Asia. 

They held their own in the AFC Champions League, engaging in thrilling encounters against formidable countries.

Although, a resolute commitment to football’s growth was evident in the nation’s strategic investments.

Modern stadiums, cutting-edge academies, and state-of-the-art training centres underscored Saudi Arabia’s dedication.

Hosting the AFC Asian Cup in 1984 and 1988, alongside the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1989, showcased the country’s mettle in orchestrating grand-scale football extravaganzas.

But perhaps the most rewarding yet controversial addition to Saudi Arabia’s football presence was the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

Whilst the build-up toward the tournament was clouded by human rights conversations and financial fair play, it produced some of the most scintillating football ever witnessed.

The final itself between Argentina and France has been argued as “the best football match ever”.

It produced a fairytale ending for Lionel Messi who finally added the only trophy missing from his cabinet and for some, put a rest to the argument about who is the greatest player of all time. 

However, the national side also showed their tenacity with their aggressive play and hard work ethic.

They achieved one of the most memorable games of the World Cup with their 2-1 victory over Argentina. 

The football spoke for itself and undoubtedly put many fans on high alert about what the Middle East could achieve.

Regardless of the magic the World Cup produced, many still didn’t see the area as a hotspot for players to go to.

The Cristiano Ronaldo Move

Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to Football?

After the massive fallout between Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United, there was much speculation about where the striker would end up. 

After dismissing reports that he would move to Saudi Arabia because he still wanted to compete in Europe, Ronaldo made a U-turn decision.

In December 2022, he inked a two-and-a-half-year contract with Al Nassr, valued at over 200 million euros (£172.6 million).

This transfer was ridiculed by the footballing community.

Many fans went on social media and called the five-time Ballon d’Or winner “washed up” and thought “his career is finished”. 

Pundits and former players also showed their dismay at Ronaldo’s choice, saying he went for the money and his ego had been his downfall. 

Although, Ronaldo would later come out in defence of his new home in the summer of 2023, stating:

“We have very good teams, very good Arab players, but the infrastructure – they need to improve a little bit more.

“Even the referees, the VAR system, should be a little quicker.

“But I’m happy here, I want to continue here, I will continue here.”

Given Ronaldo’s accolades and incredible trophy collection, there’s no doubt that the SPL was a dropoff from Europe’s top five leagues, especially seeing as Ronaldo has played in three of those. 

However, no one could envision the effect Ronaldo himself would have on Saudi Arabia’s celebration of football.

Influencers, presenters, and millions of fans flocked to the country to watch Ronaldo play, bringing in a lot of tourism for the nation.

He helped tremendously with the growth of Saudi Arabia’s football profile, previously admitting he wanted to be an ambassador for the country.

But, no one believed him.

Fast forward a few months and we are now seeing a catalogue of world-class players going to Saudi Arabia. 

And, there’s no doubt that Ronaldo has a big part to play in that. Some would say he was a trailblazer and took a risk that looks like it’s paid off. 

2023 Summer Transfer Window

Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to Football?

The summer transfer window is an exciting time for football fans, especially those who support clubs in England, Spain and Italy.

Arguably the most surprising yet busiest nation has been Saudi Arabia.

With its huge fees and salary budgets, it has lured in some of the world’s most established yet promising players.

There’s no doubt that money has been a big part of these transfers.

However, it has left many questioning what the future of football could be like.

After all, players are human beings thinking of their family’s future. So, could one really question their motives? 

Regardless, the players who have come have raised the worth of many teams across the SPL. 

Considered one of the best wingers in the world during his final year at Liverpool in 2022, Sadio Mane made the surprising move to German giants, Bayern Munich. 

After a dismal year, a brawl with fellow player Leroy Sane and being cast out by the fans, Mane made the move to Ronaldo’s side Al Nassr. 

With a transfer fee of £24 million, it’s reported that he will be earning an impressive annual wage of £33 million. 

Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez finalised his move to Al-Ahli with a transfer fee of around £30 million.

At the age of 32, Mahrez is making the shift from Man City, and the reported annual wage stands at £25.6 million.

In a significant move, Jordan Henderson bid farewell to his 12-year tenure at Liverpool, a period marked by triumphant wins across major competitions.

Henderson’s path now leads him to join forces once again with former Liverpool captain and teammate Steven Gerrard, who currently manages Al-Ettifaq.

Henderson, 33, was secured from Liverpool for a fee of £12 million, and his reported annual wage is £18.2 million.

The 2022 Ballon d’Or winner, Karim Benzema was one of the most surprising transfers of the summer.

Aged 35, the five-time Champions League winner still looked lively and like he had much to offer as captain of Real Madrid.

However, he joined Al-Ittihad who offered him a staggering salary of around £172 million.

N’Golo Kante, followed Benzema after his Chelsea contract concluded, albeit with concerns over his fitness.

Aged 32, Kante’s signing from Chelsea comes as a free transfer, and his annual wage will be about £86.2 million.

Kante’s former teammate, Kalidou Koulibaly, also left Chelsea after just one year, joining Al-Hilal for £20 million.

He will receive a monumental £30 million yearly. 

Captaining Inter Milan in their 2023 Champions League final loss to Manchester City, Croatia midfielder Brozovic made a notable exit.

After a successful eight seasons and five major trophies in Italy, the 30-year-old joined Al Nassr for £15 million and will earn £35 million every year. 

However, whilst the name of these transfers is very impressive, the players are in their 30s, so many fans could see the money-motivated move for them.

But, Saudi Arabia has also attracted many young, promising and lucrative players to their league.

The first of which was the most surprising – Ruben Neves. 

Neves, aged 26, was secured from Wolves for a fee of £47 million, and his wage is £15.6 million.

He was the target for many top-flight clubs like Arsenal and Manchester United. But, he decided to join Al-Hilal instead.

Likewise, 24-year-old Jota joined Al-Ittihad after winning a domestic treble with Scottish side, Celtic. 

He was signed for a fee of £25 million and will earn £10 million.

Another shock move was the transfer of Allan Saint-Maximin to Al-Ahli.

Saint-Maximin’s tenure at Newcastle was a magical one as the skilful player helped the side reach a Champions League spot in the 22/23 campaign. 

Whilst his wage is yet to be disclosed, he cost Al Ahli £23 million. 

Another Manchester United target, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, moved to the SPL for £34.3 million.

Lazio’s standout player since 2020 will now earn £17 million yearly in Saudi Arabia.

This goes to show just how urgent the SPL teams have been in their pursuit of players, but the cascade of transfers that have happened, when no one thought they could. 

To top it all off, Al-Hilal broke the internet when they made a surprising move for PSG forward Kylian Mbappe.

When news of him leaving PSG was reported, the Saudi side was quick to jump on negotiations.

Al-Hilal made a record bid of 300 million euros (£259 million) for Mbappe – the highest fee in history for a player. 

However, PSG and the world assumed that Mbappe had already agreed to join Real Madrid, a side that the French international has always said he’d play for. 

So, Al-Hilal stepped up their pursuit. They offered Mbappe a salary of £605 million for just one year. 

Then, he would be free to leave for Real Madrid in 2024. But, he dismissed these reports and refused to meet with the side to discuss a possible record move. 

It goes to show just the amount of money available to Saudi Arabian clubs and the unbelievable fees they can pay. 

Many pundits and fans have shown their dismay at how freely the country can secure these funds.

However, it seems it’s not stopping major players from making the switch to the Middle East. 

The One-Year Evolution

Is Saudi Arabia a Threat to Football?

With such a whirlwind of decisions, transfers and money related to Saudi Arabia, the SPL teams have seen an incredible rise in their market value.

This is down to the obvious new faces of the league, but also due to the increase in footballing culture and celebration.

In just one year, teams have seen their market value double or even triple.

To get an idea of just how quickly Saudi Arabia is developing as a footballing nation and if the argument of them becoming a powerhouse could be true, we look at some teams’ growth. 

Note that the valuations have stayed in euros to get the closest figure possible. 

Saudi Pro League Club Market Value

ClubValue - July 2022Value - August 2023DifferencePercentage Growth
Al Hilal€60.82m€163.40m€102.59m168.7 %
Al-Nassr€59.08m€152.98m€93.90m159.0 %
Al-Ahli€22.25m€120.23m€97.98m440.3 %
Al-Ittihad€29.43m€119.88m€90.45m307.4 %
Al-Ettifaq€19.88m€44.48m€24.60m123.8 %
Al-Fateh€12.95m€24.78m€11.83m91.3 %
Al-Shabab€32.70m€23.68m€-9.03m-27.6 %
Al-Taawoun FC€15.43m€19.18m€3.75m24.3 %
Abha Club€10.05m€17.58m€7.53m74.9 %
Al-Hazem SC€3.20m€14.98m€11.78m368.0 %
Al-Fayha FC€10.28m€14.20m€3.93m38.2 %
Al-Okhdood Club€450k€12.80m€12.35m2744.4 %
Khaleej FC€2.68m€12.40m€9.73m363.6 %
Al-Tai FC€6.93m€12.33m€5.40m78.0 %

This table goes to show just how incredible the market value has become of SPL teams in the short space of one year.

Since July 2022, some teams like Al-Ittihad and Al-Hazem have seen over a 300% increase. 

Of course, Al-Okhdood has been the club with the most impressive transformation, with a 2744% increase.

Although other teams like Al-Shabab and Al-Wehda (not shown) have seen a decrease in market value, the overall stature of SPL teams is growing.

It shows just how remarkable Saudi Arabia has been with the players they’ve brought in and the impact this could have on the footballing landscape.

With more notable players joining the league, then how could this influence brands and sponsors joining the nation, especially from a business standpoint?

More brand partnerships would result in more marketing, awareness and money pumped into Saudi football.

It could also see UEFA open up Champions League places to SPL teams, even though the competition has solely been dedicated to European sides.

Regardless of how the future pans out for Saudi Arabia, the country’s football revolution is truly underway. 

Balraj is a spirited Creative Writing MA graduate. He loves open discussions and his passions are fitness, music, fashion, and poetry. One of his favourite quotes is “One day or day one. You decide.”

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