Which big names have traded Premier League for Saudi Arabia?

Jordan Henderson, Cristiano Ronaldo and Riyah Mahrez have all joined the Saudi League. Credit: PA

Saudi Arabia wants to replace the Premier League as the home of elite football and it looks ready to spend whatever it takes.

Cristiano Ronaldo's move from Manchester United to Al Nassr in the Saudi League last year appeared at first to be an outlier but it has proven the start of an influx of top talent from around the world who have decided the money is worth the criticism.

Possibly the biggest shock so far has been former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, whose outspoken support of the LGBT community is at odds with anti-gay laws in the country where he will play next season.

But he is far from alone, with Manchester City striker Riyad Mahrez and Newcastle forward Allan Saint-Maximin the latest to trade the Premier League for the Saudi Pro League.

The country's human rights record has long been a concern - and the bid to take over world football has seen the country accused of 'sportswashing' - but clubs there have state backing that gives them seemingly unlimited funds.

The kingdom's sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund (PIF) took a majority ownership stake in four of the country’s top clubs last month - effectively nationalising the top level of domestic football as a state project.

Which big names have joined the Saudi Pro League?

Here's a list of just some of the footballers who will play in Saudi Arabia next year

  • Cristiano Ronaldo - joined Al Nassr from Manchester United

  • Karim Benzema - joined Al-Ittihad from Real Madrid

  • Riyad Mahrez - joined Al-Ahli Saudi FC from Manchester City

  • Jordan Henderson - joined Al-Ettifaq from Liverpool

  • N’Golo Kante - joined Al-Ittihad from Chelsea

  • Marcelo Brozović - joined Al Nassr from Inter Milan

  • Kalidou Koulibaly - joined Al-Hilal from Chelsea

  • Ruben Neves - joined Al-Hilal from Wolves

  • Edouard Mendy - joined Al Ahli from Chelsea

  • Jota - joined Al Ittihad from Celtic

  • Roberto Firmino - joined Al Ahli from Liverpool

  • Moussa Dembele - joined Al Ettifaq from Lyon

  • Allan Saint-Maximin - joined Al-Ahli from Newcastle

There are also several big-name managers in the Saudi League, including Steven Gerrard, Slaven Bilić and Nuno Espírito Santo.

The reported salaries and commercial deals for Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kante could earn them a combined figure of almost £790,000,000.

Why is Saudi Arabia's PIF willing to spend so much money on foreign players?

Dr Dan Plumley, sports finance expert at Sheffield Hallam University, said: "The aggressive spending is linked to a strategy to break into the top 10 leagues in the world.

"It’s part of a much bigger strategy linked to their own Vision 2030 and strategic direction of the country in the future.

"It is not just football, it is all sport and we have already seen moves with golf (LIV Golf in particular), boxing (hosting mega fights in country), major sporting event bids and even the WWE hosting pay-per-view events in country."

The PIF already owns Premier League club Newcastle and manages more than £470 billion of the oil-rich kingdom’s assets.

Unlike the Premier League and other European teams, Saudi clubs are not bound by UEFA’s rules on spending, meaning there is no limit to the salaries the PIF can offer to lure top players to the Middle East.

What do Premier League Clubs stand to gain from PIF buying their players?

Saudi Arabian spending in football has jumped as some English clubs struggle to balance their books.

Chelsea spent around £490m on new players last season, while posting losses of £121 million in 2021-22. Wolves are said to have lost £46.1 million last year.

Kieran Maguire, a University of Liverpool football finance expert, explained that as well as facing difficult financial decisions, Chelsea has a surplus of players.

"Normally there's a problem for a club such as Chelsea because they pay very high wages and therefore trying to persuade players to leave is difficult," he said.

"If Chelsea were trying to sell that player to say a smaller club such as Crystal Palace, you'd have a problem because Crystal Palace can't pay the wages. The Saudi leagues can."

Critics of Chelsea's transfers to Saudi Arabia have also highlighted allegations that PIF holds a stake in Clearlake Capital, Chelsea's ultimate owner.

Chelsea's Kalidou Koulibaly is reported to be transferring to Saudi Arabia.

Sky Sports commentator and former Manchester United player Gary Neville told BBC Sport the Premier League should put an "instant embargo" on transfers to Saudi Arabia "until you look into the ownership structure at Chelsea and whether there are beneficial transfer dealings that are improper".

Mr Maguire said saying there's "no evidence" to support the "conspiracy theories" there is "some form of relationship between Chelsea Football Club and the Saudi authorities".

According to i, the Premier League will scrutinise transfers to the Saudi Pro League but has no plans to enforce an embargo on big-money deals to Saudi Arabia.

The report said the league is confident in its new Fair Market Value rules, which require all transfers to be representative of each player's value.

Do accusations of 'sportswashing' hold any weight?

Sky Sports commentator and former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher is among many that have accused Saudi Arabia of 'sportswashing'.

Sportswashing is using the prestige of staging major sporting events to divert attention from a nation's human rights record.

Amid rumours of Bernardo Silva's transfer, Carragher wrote on Twitter that the player is "in his peak years & has been one of the best players in Europe for the last five years!

"I wasn’t worried about the Saudi League taking players in their 30’s, a touch worried with players below the elite (Neves) but if this happens it feels like a game changer.

"Saudi have taken over Golf, the big Boxing fights & now they want to take over football!! This sports washing needs to be stopped!

Leading global rights organisations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused PIF of sportswashing last month after the fund merged with the PGA and DP World golf tours.

Commentator and former player Jamie Carragher has accused Saudi Arabia of 'sportswashing'.

What impact will Saudi's funds have on European football in general?

"There will be a distorting effect among leagues, especially in relation to the transfer market and players valued in the middle range of the market," Dr Dan Plumley said.

"We have seen similar before in the transfer market, in the Premier League itself but also in China in recent years. However, this could be on a bigger scale if it is sustained for years to come because of the financial power of the PIF."

Critics say another downside is that clubs that partake in big-money Saudi deals will be at an unfair advantage.

Mr Maguire said Chelsea's reported transfers are "putting more money into Chelsea's coffers at a time when a lot of critics have said they've overspent historically, so therefore they may need to make significant cutbacks.

"The critics are saying this is a workaround that means Chelsea will still be able to spend as much money as before and not having to make the sacrifices, which would apply to other clubs."

What are the Saudi Pro League's credentials?

The Saudi Pro League, in its current guise, was established in 2008, but the competition dates to 1976. Defending champion Al Hilal is the most successful team, having won 18 titles and four Asian Champions Leagues.

Currently, the league is considered well below the standard of the top divisions in Europe and South America.

However, it is hugely popular among football fans in Arabic countries.

More than 1.25 million spectators attended matches in the 2021-22 season, according to official statistics, with a television audience of more than 215 million during that campaign.

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