After raiding European football, is the Saudi league the next big thing, or simply a sport washing exercise?

With Europe’s major leagues returning this week, has the Saudi Pro League big summer spending stolen the limelight away? Football pundits talk to KARL AZZOPARDI

Amidst the echoes of anticipation, the stage is once against set and the battle lines redrawn, as European football’s biggest leagues are back.

The English and Spanish leagues returned last week, as Manchester City and Barcelona’s title defence kicked off.

For football fans, summer means more than just pre-season games and training, it also means following closely the transfer market.

To supporters, the transfer market represents a blend of hope, anxiety, and excitement, intertwining with their emotional connection with the club they passionately follow.

Karim Benzema signed a three-year deal with Saudi champions Al Ittihad
Karim Benzema signed a three-year deal with Saudi champions Al Ittihad

But this summer, one relatively unknown non-European league has stolen the limelight. The Saudi Pro League dominated the headlines, as big-name players made their way to Saudi Arabia.

Ruben Neves, Karim Benzema and Roberto Firmino all moved to clubs in Saudia Arabia for lucrative offers, playing with teams none of us ever heard of.

The new chapter for the Saudi Arabian league started last January, following footballing great Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr. Many, both in their prime and after an illustrious career with European giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich, followed the five-time Champions League winner.

MaltaToday reached out to different voices in the Maltese football scene to gauge their views on how the situation in Saudi Arabia will evolve.

Football pundit and veteran sports presenter Christian Micallef labelled it “one of the biggest shakeups in football history.”

“If we had to analyse this situation, I strongly feel the transfer which started it all was Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to the Saudi Pro League, as many players have followed his steps. Let’s not forget that Ronaldo started playing with Al-Nassr in January and since than he has opened the floodgates for others to follow,” he said.

Sports journalist Christian Micallef
Sports journalist Christian Micallef

Liverpool supporter Jeremy Camilleri, a social media commentor, shared the same sentiment, saying history has shown that anywhere in the world, teams which splash the cash have managed to buy their way to success.

Micallef pointed out that unlike Europe, Saudi teams have no spending cap imposed over them, allowing them more leeway to spend big on players.

Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Al-Nassr last January
Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Al-Nassr last January

“Saudi Arabia has used billions from its Public Investment Fund over the last two-and-a-half years, spending on sports at a scale that has completely changed the international transfer market for football,” he said.

Malta Football Association (MFA) President Bjorn Vassallo on the other hand pointed out that without a proper grassroots system, it is very difficult to sustain the enormous sums needed to import the top players, even if the country has unlimited financial means.

MFA President Bjorn Vassallo (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
MFA President Bjorn Vassallo (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

“For youth development to succeed, there needs to be a minimum 10-year plan, which I personally do not see happening in a country where the mindset is to buy with money whatever is wanted or needed, and this not only in football,” he said.

Cultural boundaries and the importance of tradition

On whether cultural differences will impact the Saudi league’s success, Micallef said that at first glance, it will.

“The cultural setting of Saudi Arabia is greatly influenced by the Arab and Islamic ideals. However, if we had to indulge in the country’s long-term ambition and economic strategy, it’s a known fact that the Saudi government’s success in ‘liberating’ the Saudi society from its ‘closemindedness’ is turning out to be efficacious; yet I have serious doubts if this is being done in good faith or not,” he added.

Jeremy Camilleri
Jeremy Camilleri

Vassallo said the formula being used by Saudi teams has been tried out in China, and has failed.

“China tried the same thing with the Chinese Super League a few years back but nowadays there is a total decline. You cannot buy tradition.. you can visit it, learn about it, at times try to copy it, but you can never buy it,” he said.

Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson moved to Al-Ettifaq this summer
Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson moved to Al-Ettifaq this summer

Jeremy Camilleri pointed out that certain players, like former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who have advocated for certain civil rights, will now have to curb their activism given the culture in the country. Henderson secured a move to club Al-Ettifaq this summer.

“The Henderson transfer is a case in point where you have a gay rights advocate going to play in a country in which gay relationships are considered a serious crime,” he said.

But Micallef feels the Saudi government is also looking to establish the country as an elite sports hub.

“Although Saudi Arabia might be sports washing its dubious civil rights reputation, during the past years it has been successfully focusing its attention to enhance its reputation as a big sports centre in the Middle East by hosting Formula 1 events, willing to host the World Cup, and now by promoting itself through the biggest international football stars,” he said.

Camilleri, a die-hard Liverpool supporter, pointed out it would be hypocritical for Europe’s major leagues to judge Saudi club spending, following decades of big-money transfers in the continent.

“I have long argued in favour of a financial ceiling where expenditure is capped, long before the Saudi explosion. Teams like Manchester City and Real Madrid have been getting away with twisting financial rules for years, so people getting livid over the Saudis chucking money at players must be living on Mars,” he said.

The MFA president also agrees on the need to revamp rules which govern the purchase and sale of football players.

“In my opinion there needs to be a total revamp when it come to the economies of football. The once accredited rules for Financial Fair Play have now been trashed, and from summer 2022 UEFA has been implementing new Financial Sustainability rules which should address more the solvency stability and cost control. Nevertheless the global regulation is still in the dominium of FIFA and presently these big investments are not against any rule,” he said.

Is the Saudi league catching up to European giants?

Camilleri and Micallef acknowledge the Saudi league has made great leaps, both still feel it is still a couple of steps behind European leagues.

“Major European leagues are steeped in tradition, and you cannot just bankroll history even though a number of European clubs have managed to buy their success,” Camilleri said.

“Interestingly enough, I believe the Saudi idea that they can just buy their way into something that took so long to build, is actually fuelling antagonism against them.”

Micallef said that while Saudis are on the right track and have now established themselves among the top 10 leagues in the world, they are still far-off.

“Even though Saudi Arabia is now considered to be a central player in world’s most lucrative sport, the European leagues will always remain at the top of the most popular football leagues in the world,” he said.

“Unfortunately, this revolution will only weaken the level of European football, including the main club competition - the UEFA Champions League.”

The MFA President said he believes the Saudi league must turn into a closed league, where teams are not relegated, for it to be successful.

“Unless their total objectives change and the league fully starts focusing on the commercial and entertainment part, which cannot be sustained in those regions of the world, then it cannot be sustainable. Until it lasts it would be a league for semi-retired top-class players who want to become richer than they already are,” he said.