Saudi Arabia have been flexing their muscles in sport – most notably in Formula 1 and golf – in recent years, and it appears that football is next in the oil-rich Gulf state’s hit list.
In October 2021, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) bought Newcastle United in a consortium with PCP Capital Partners and the Reuben Brothers.
They’ve since backed Newcastle with hundreds of millions in the transfer market, transforming them from relegation-battlers to Champions League participants.
Since then, they’ve taken control of the four biggest clubs in the Saudi Pro League – Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, and Al Ahli – and have partaken in a major drive to recruit some of the world’s most famous footballers.
We’ve taken a look at a full XI of players currently owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
GK: Nick Pope
We’re not starting off with a superstar, admittedly, with Pope joining Eddie Howe’s Magpies following Burnley’s relegation in 2022.
But the England international was outstanding in Newcastle’s top-four push in his debut season and is undoubtedly among the Premier League’s best goalkeepers.
Al Ahli are reportedly close to signing Champions League winner Edouard Mendy from Chelsea, but for now, Pope is the obvious pick between the sticks ahead of Al Nassr’s David Ospina.
RB: Kieran Trippier
“You look at the club, you look at the fanbase – it’s a huge club. And now the project that’s happening now, it’s very exciting. And that’s another reason why I came here,” Trippier said after joining Newcastle as one of their first signings of the post-Ashley era.
Surprisingly enough he didn’t have Looney Tunes-esque pound signs in his eyes as he said it.
Having won the La Liga title with Atletico Madrid, Trippier stated he wanted to return to England for family reasons.
His experience and leadership – already club captain – has proven instrumental (alongside the considerable investment) in turning Newcastle’s fortunes around.
CB: Kalidou Koulibaly
It was only last year that Koulibaly was rated as one of Europe’s most highly-rated, in-demand centre-backs.
The Senegalese centre-back finally moved on from Napoli last summer, joining Chelsea. But his debut season at Stamford Bridge didn’t go to plan and Todd Boehly’s Blues have decided to cut their losses already, moving the 32-year-old on for a £17million fee, roughly half what they paid for his services in 2022.
Koulibaly joins Odion Ighalo and Moussa Marega in a somewhat eclectic squad.
Kalidou Koulibaly has completed a £20m move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Hilal. ✅ pic.twitter.com/cMX1D7DThG
— Football Daily (@footballdaily) June 26, 2023
CB: Sven Botman
The Dutch defender won the Ligue 1 title in his debut season with Lille and swiftly established himself as one of the best young defenders in Europe. This was the kind of signing Newcastle couldn’t possibly have made until the big-money investment started flowing in.
Botman played almost every minute last term as Newcastle finished above the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea to qualify for the Champions League. You imagine he’ll be the bedrock of their backline for many more years to come.
LB: Dan Burn
Fittingly enough at left-back, the least glamorous name on this teamsheet, and completing our almost entirely Tyneside-based rearguard.
As yet, the Saudi recruitment drive appears to have been more focused on bringing headline-grabbing midfielders and forwards to the Saudi Pro League – while Newcastle’s transformation has largely been built upon their new-look defence.
Returning Geordie boy Burn is an odd fit at left-back, but it somehow works. The 6’6″ colossus isn’t anybody’s idea of a marauding full-back, but he’s astute defensively and his physicality is a difference-maker.
He deserves his place ahead of fellow post-takeover buy Matt Targett in Howe’s XI as well as this one.
DM: N’Golo Kante
Man of the match in both semi-finals against Real Madrid and the final against Manchester City when Chelsea claimed the Champions League.
One of the star men in Leicester’s miraculous title win. A PFA Player of the Year after Chelsea’s 2016-17 title win. A World Cup winner with France. Kante has arguably already completed football.
On the one hand, it’s a massive shame to see Kante, undoubtedly one of the finest footballers in the world on his day, leave behind top-level football at the age of 32.
On the other hand, it’s hard to begrudge him one last bumper payday, especially after such an injury-stricken final season at Stamford Bridge.
He joins former Les Bleus team-mate Karim Benzema at Nuno Espirito Santo’s Al-Ittihad, the reigning champions of the Saudi Pro League.
CM: Ruben Neves
It’s difficult to make the same case for Neves, who captained Porto in the Champions League at the age of 18 but has rarely tasted elite-level European competition in the years since.
The Portuguese midfielder leaves Molineux as one of Wolves’ all-time greats, having played a leading role in their promotion from the Championship and subsequent consolidation in the Premier League.
That must be immensely satisfying in its own right, but as Neves departs for Al-Hilal at the age of 26 – for a mammoth £47million fee, no less – there must be a part of him that wonders if his career might’ve panned out differently.
— Wolves (@Wolves) June 23, 2023
CM: Bruno Guimaraes
The Brazilian made the risky choice to leave Lyon for Newcastle as they sat in the relegation zone in January 2022.
Eighteen months later and that leap of faith has been vindicated, with Howe’s Magpies offering Guimaraes the chance to turn out in the Champions League once again. He’s arguably been the club’s best player in the Howe era and may yet improve further amid further midfield reinforcements like Sandro Tonali.
“I am ambitious. This is something I have been since I remember. [I] have ambition and challenge myself,” Guimaraes said after Newcastle’s top-four finish last term.
“When I signed people say ‘You are crazy to sign for a team who could play in the Championship next season’. But here we are and we have Champions League one year after.”
FWR: Karim Benzema
Benzema produced the best football of his career, firing Real Madrid to Champions League glory and lifting a well-deserved Ballon d’Or, after stepping out of Ronaldo’s shadow and succeeding him as Los Blancos’ main man up top.
But for the purposes of this XI, we’re shunting him back out to a supporting role, playing just off the centre-forward.
The reigning Ballon d’Or holder, 35, was expected to sign an extension and continue at Real Madrid but he couldn’t resist the lucrative offer coming courtesy of Al-Ittihad.
He arrived after his contract at the Bernabeu expired and his signing precipitated a wave of big-name stars moving to the Saudi Pro League this summer.
ST: Cristiano Ronaldo
Technically speaking, Ronaldo wasn’t actually bought by the Public Investment Fund – he joined Al-Nassr six months before Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund struck a deal to take control of the club. But he’s nevertheless the league’s biggest poster boy and among its most vocal cheerleaders.
“Let’s bug people a bit,” Ronaldo said earlier this summer.
“I knew that me going to Saudi Arabia would open a box and I wasn’t wrong.
“I’m sure that in a couple of years or three from now, this league is going to be one of the most important leagues in the world.
“We can see that already Karim left already and I am 1000 per cent sure that many more players will too.”
Pass us the bucket.
FWL: Alexander Isak
Again, strictly speaking, Isak would be better utilised as a No.9, but in his debut season in England he played on the left on the odd occasion, so that’s good enough for us.
Newcastle United’s record signing still has his best years ahead of him. He suffered with injuries last term but looked like a quality addition when fit and available and made some important contributions.