Neymar becomes latest star to trade European football for Saudi Arabia

Neymar is reportedly on the verge of leaving Paris Saint-Germain Credit: AP

Neymar has agreed to move to Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal, becoming the latest big name to swap football in Europe for the Gulf state.

Paris St Germain could receive up to 100 million euros (£86.3m) from Al Hilal for the 31-year-old Brazilian as the Saudi league continues to attract some of the game's biggest stars in what many critics have criticised as a sportswashing project.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first to make the move last year, with Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Real Madrid legend Karim Benzema among the others to follow in a high-spending summer.

The country's human rights record has long been a concern, 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.

Al Hilal previously approached Mbappe with a move to Saudi Arabia. Credit: AP

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.

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.

Mbappe unlikely to follow Neymar

News of Neymar’s exit comes after the club confirmed striker Kylian Mbappe had been reinstated to first-team training.

Mbappe is understood to have indicated his commitment to the club, who have offered him a contract with a “guaranteed sale” clause in it allowing him to seal a move to Real Madrid next summer for a fee.

The club had been convinced Mbappe was preparing to let his current deal run out, which would have allowed him to leave Paris and join Real on a free transfer next year.

The club acted by omitting the player from the pre-season tour of Japan and South Korea and forcing him to train away from the main first-team group, until the thaw in relations confirmed on Sunday.

They had also granted Mbappe permission to talk to Al Hilal after receiving a world record £259m bid for the player in July, but it was reported the 24-year-old refused to even meet with a delegation from the Saudi club.

The big money exit of Neymar and the news on Mbappe marks a major and positive turnaround for PSG.

The French champions are consciously moving away from what their president Nasser Al Khelaifi has called their “bling bling” era, with Argentina playmaker Lionel Messi also exiting the club earlier this summer.

Neymar’s signing for a world record £200m fee in 2017 arguably marked the start of that era, but the club’s incomings this summer indicate a difference in approach, with the likes of 22-year-old Portugal striker Goncalo Ramos changing the profile of the team.

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