The Saudi Pro League parking its tank on European football’s lawn with an aggressive and ambitious approach in the transfer market has undoubtedly been the story of the summer.
With four of the league’s top clubs backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, they’re able to offer seriously lucrative wages – and so we’ve seen some of football’s biggest names make the switch to the rising Middle Eastern league.
When it comes to the likes of Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo and N’Golo Kante, we’re less fussed about seeing them go – they achieved everything there was to achieve in the European game and their best years are undoubtedly behind them.
We’ve seen this playbook of signing ageing superstar names before with the Chinese Super League, and that proved to be a flash in the pan.
But unlike China, Saudi Arabia has managed to tempt a number of players in their prime years. Here are nine players we’re gutted have signed for Saudi Pro League clubs.
Some of Europe’s top clubs might have been pleased that the Saudi Pro League has emerged to alleviate their bloated wage bills and provide an outlet for their older players.
But Gabri Veiga moving to Al Ahli should be a serious concern for European football. The 21-year-old midfielder enjoyed an outstanding breakthrough campaign at Celta Vigo last term and is undoubtedly one of European football’s finest young talents.
He undoubtedly has the potential to make the step up to play at the elite level, with several of Europe’s biggest clubs linked, but as the weeks ticked on this summer it looked like another season with his boyhood club
Al Ahli have yet to officially announce the deal but according to Fabrizio Romano it’s signed and sealed. Real Madrid stalwart Toni Kroos commented on Romano’s Instagram post that the move is “embarrassing”. Ouch.
In footballing terms, Henderson can be filed alongside Benzema and Ronaldo in taking the paycheque after passing his best in Europe.
But it’s not for football reasons that we’re disappointed in the England international signing for Al-Ettifaq. We refer you to a strong statement from Liverpool LGBT fan group Kop Outs:
“Kop Outs have valued the allyship shown by Jordan Henderson.
“We are appalled and concerned that anyone might consider working for a sportswashing operation for a regime where women & LGBT+ people are oppressed and that regularly tops the world death sentence table.
“(Steven) Gerrard’s participation in this sportswashing is particularly galling given his previous support for LA Galaxy team-mate Robbie Rogers (who came out as gay in 2013).
“When someone’s made a fortune, should money tempt them to go to work? Maybe they should be asking themselves those questions.
“We hope that Jordan Henderson proves to be a man of his word and stays true to the values of our club, which so far he has been an absolute embodiment of.”
The heir to Leandro Damiao and Julian Draxler as the undisputed king of the transfer gossip column, Milinkovic-Savic’s midfield powerhouse performances for Lazio saw him consistently linked with Manchester United and Real Madrid.
More than capable of playing in the Champions League (which Lazio have qualified for), it’s disappointing that Milinkovic-Savic has finally departed the Stadio Olimpico for Al Hilal, a club who – frankly – he’s just too good for.
One of the most fun players in the Premier League and a proper cult hero on Tyneside.
The fact that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund also owns Newcastle United makes this one a bit murky – maybe it even makes us hypocrites – but we’re a bit crestfallen that the French winger won’t be lighting up Champions League nights under the St. James’ Park floodlights.
He was the closest thing Eddie Howe’s Magpies had to one of Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers.
Maxi, it's been a pleasure.
Once a Geordie, always a Geordie. 🖤🤍 pic.twitter.com/rLCMbBOg54
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) July 30, 2023
The youngest ever captain of a Champions League team, Neves left Porto at the age of 20 to join Wolves – back when they were in the Championship.
The Portuguese midfielder was an indelible part of Wolves’ promotion and subsequent consolidation as a Premier League club. And now he’s Al-Hilal.
There’s a parallel universe in which Neves played in elite European competition throughout his twenties. He certainly possesses the ability to have done. But in this universe, money evidently talks loudest.
“If you ask me is it normal? No. Should football players behave in this way? No. Easy answer,” was Marco Silva’s terse response after Mitrovic’s move from Fulham to Al Hilal was confirmed.
“He forced it, but I’m not saying if I’m disappointed in him. Everything of my opinion I told him myself in private.”
We’re going to miss watching the big Serbian battering ram terrorise Premier League defences.
The Senegal international might be 31 and past his peak, but it’s only a year ago that he was considered one of the finest forwards in the world.
Mane’s move to Bayern Munich didn’t work out, but we still reckon that he could have offered a lot to a club at the top of the club game. Just look at old Liverpool team-mate Mohamed Salah, who is still tearing up the Premier League at the same age.
At least you can be confident that a chunk of Mane’s massive wage at Al Nassr will be donated to good causes.
To say that Neymar has wasted his career would be something of an overstatement. He won the Champions League with Barcelona, scored in the final, and for a time fulfilled his frightening potential alongside Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. He’s also scored as many goals for Brazil as Pele.
But it would be fair to say that Neymar didn’t have the career that his talent warranted. He was actually very good when fit and available for PSG, but ultimately few will look back and remember what he did in domestic French football. Nor will his years with Al-Hilal be anything but a sad footnote.
Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? No. Neymar was always going to take those massive sacks of cash.
A world-class defender on his day who surely could have played for any number of Europe’s most glamorous clubs after departing Manchester City.
Laporte is not yet 30 and could have spent another half-decade at the top of the game before chasing that last bumper paycheque.