It all started in 2021 when a consortium of Saudi investment fund, PCP Partners, bought out English Premier League football club Newcastle United. Then came the much publicised Portuguese superstar Ronaldo’s move from Manchester United to Saudi club Al-Nassr soon after last year’s FIFA World Cup.
This has now led to an exodus of footballers from European leagues especially the EPL to the cash-rich Saudi league. The list includes Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrrez, N’Golo Kante, Marcelo Brozovic, Jordan Henderson, Kalidou Koulibaly, Roberto Firmino and many more on the Saudi wishlist. Lionel Messi was on the radar but Inter Miami snapped up the Argentine superstar.
French star Kylian Mbappe is being actively courted by the Saudi club Al-Hilal for an eye-popping €300 million. But Mbappe has spurned this offer, opting to see out his contract with Paris St. Germain (PSG) and move on a “free transfer” next summer much to the French club’s alarm, which could lead them losing out on a hefty transfer fee.
Most of these players moving to Saudi clubs are from the Europe’s elite clubs — Manchester City, Liverpool FC, Chelsea, and Real Madrid. The salaries offered by the Saudi clubs are astronomical — Benzema is set to earn €200 million a year on a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad and Kante €86 million a year on a four-year contract.
There is already enough hand-wringing in England over Gulf monarchies’ eyeing English clubs. With Saudi Arabia now the new player on the European football transfer market, what does that portend for football in Europe? Football seems to the ideal vehicle for Middle East states to push their “soft power”.
Will that lead to a talent-crunch in Europe? That seems unlikely given the vibrant “academy” culture nurturing talent in Europe. But it will certainly put more financial pressure on European clubs. So will our Sunil Chhetri get a chance to play in the EPL’s Aston Villa or Fulham?