When a high-profile footballer’s career enters its twilight, the player often has an important decision to make.
Do they retire? Go back to the club that handed them their debut for a sentimental last hurrah? Take on a coaching role? Or, perhaps, they have a fourth option: take the chance to head overseas, play in a league beneath their quality or status but boost their bank account hugely in the process?
This happened to Cristiano Ronaldo in January. After his emotional return for a second spell with Manchester United in September 2021 after 12 years with Real Madrid and Juventus resulted in his contract being mutually terminated some 14 months later, the now 38-year-old forward opted to move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr, the nine-time domestic champions based in the Gulf nation’s capital and biggest city, Riyadh.
Ronaldo signed a two-and-a-half-year contract worth in the region of £177million ($220m) a year, which, let’s be frank, no European club would ever come close to matching at his age despite his achievements across two decades. It’s the equivalent of nearly £3.5m per week.
Now Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s long-time Ballon d’Or sparring partner, could join him in Saudi after his two-year contract with Qatari-owned French side Paris Saint-Germain expires in the summer.
Barcelona legend Messi, who won the World Cup with Argentina in December and turns 36 in just over a month, has an offer worth twice Ronaldo’s — more than £350million a year, or a staggering £6.7m a week — from another Riyadh club, 18-time champions Al Hilal; a package no European or Major League Soccer (North America’s MLS) side will be able to vaguely counter. Messi’s father, Jorge, said last week that his son has not agreed anything over his future.
But whether Messi follows Ronaldo or not, one thing is for sure: Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as the new frontier of football.
Buoyed by the national team’s 2-1 World Cup group-stage win over eventual champions Argentina in November and Newcastle United — majority-owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund — looking good for a Champions League spot as the Premier League enters its final week, and with a seemingly bottomless pot of money behind it, the nation is using sport as a vehicle to assert itself globally.
Why Saudi is doing this — whether as a form of ‘sportswashing’ to divert attention from an appalling human-rights record, to diversify the nation’s income away from fossil fuels, to give themselves a chance of hosting a men’s football World Cup after neighbours Qatar did so last year, to help improve the high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes among their young population, or a mix of all of the above — is an article for another time.
But there has been an interesting byproduct of its attempted surge to greater prominence in world football.
Clubs across Europe can now look at the Saudi Pro League and its vast resources as a financial fair play (FFP) dumping ground; a welcoming home for players on wages that Western clubs do not want to match, or no longer want to pay so they can comply with football’s financial regulations.
While many will baulk at the inflated salaries Saudi Arabian clubs seem determined to hand out, there will be others looking at this as a pathway to offload unwanted players.
Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was the latest player to be linked with a reported £300,000-a-week move to the Middle Eastern nation. Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, 34, is wanted by Al Hilal for a reunion with long-time Camp Nou team-mate Messi, with other reports saying the club are in discussions with another Barcelona player, Jordi Alba, also 34. Real Madrid duo Karim Benzema, 35, and 37-year-old Luka Modric, Neymar, 31, of PSG, and Porto’s 40-year-old Pepe are among other targets — a reflection of the calibre of player wanted by the Saudi league.
Financial fair play is not enforced there, so clubs will not be concerned about complying with the rules that are restricting what their European counterparts can spend. Their summer transfer opens in June and will close in September.
But to think it is only Saudi clubs pushing to sign star players would be naive.
“This is not all one way,” said a source familiar with the league, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships. “Agents are all over clubs in Saudi Arabia, so this is not them throwing themselves at the world. It goes both ways.”
Multiple intermediaries have told The Athletic they are trying to build relationships with clubs in Saudi, with some thinking they can double their player’s salary and secure long-term contracts. Another agent, however, whose player earns close to £100,000 a week already, believes it would be an achievement to have that salary matched in the Middle East, recognising clubs there will not fall into a trap of paying extortionate wages for everyone.
For many, however, a move to play in Saudi could be very convenient for all concerned.
UEFA’s current FFP rules came into force in June last year and will not take full effect until 2025. As it stands, clubs competing in UEFA competitions, such as the Champions League and Europa League, have had their spending on transfers, agents’ fees and player wages limited to a set percentage of their revenue in a calendar year.
The current limit is 90 per cent, although that will fall to 80% in 2024 before reaching its end goal of 70% from 2025 onwards.
PSG, with Messi, Neymar and France star Kylian Mbappe in their squad, recorded the highest wage bill for a professional football club at €728million (£632m/$787m at current exchange rates) a year, according to Football Benchmark’s European Champions Report 2023. They recorded net losses of €369m for 2021-22 in their latest financial figures and their wage bill went up by 45 per cent last season after they signed Messi, Sergio Ramos and Achraf Hakimi in the summer of 2021.
Last September, PSG were fined by UEFA after breaching FFP regulations. They were ordered to pay an unconditional €10million — either directly or through revenue earned from involvement in UEFA competition — with a further €55m depending on compliance with future targets over a three-year period.
Premier League sides are bound by a different, more lenient set of rules. Clubs are allowed three-year losses of £105million — or an average of £35m a season.
Then there is Spain and Barcelona’s infamous lever-pulling to alleviate their financial situation. In 2021-22, the La Liga champions spent €518million on salaries and amortised transfer fees, but this season it is up by 27 per cent to €656m after the signings of Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and five more new players last summer.
“We depend solely and exclusively on (financial) fair play,” said Xavi, the Barcelona manager, in January. “At the moment, things are difficult.”
In a football landscape where Southampton, bottom of the table and relegated from the Premier League last weekend, have spent more money (£132million) than current European and world champions Real Madrid (£69.6m) and 2021-22 Italian title winners AC Milan (£42.3m) over the past two transfer windows, Saudi offers the potential get-out in an ecosystem where it is no longer a viable option for Barcelona, Milan and company to pay over-the-top salaries.
And it works the other way, too, with Saudi clubs signing the big footballing names they crave by paying them the relevant salaries.
“The means to an end is to get as many people into, and playing, sport as possible, and if that means paying footballers a lot of money, then so be it,” a source added. “There are only so many of these ‘galactico’ players they can sign and, let’s be honest, Kylian Mbappe won’t be joining a Saudi club when he leaves PSG.”
In many ways, this feels like the new Chinese Super League, which came to the fore in 2016 when its clubs started paying vast transfer fees to buy players from Europe and offering them handsome wages.
Oscar, a Brazil international midfielder who played for Chelsea, became a marquee signing for Shanghai Port (then called Shanghai SIPG) at that time and he still plays for them. Other names who headed to China included Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Graziano Pelle, Paulinho and Mikel John Obi. Former West Ham, Manchester United, Manchester City and Juventus striker Carlos Tevez was reportedly paid £615,000 ($765k at current exchange rates) per week in 2016 when he joined Shanghai Shenhua.
Wales talisman Gareth Bale looked set to join Chinese side Jiangsu Suning from Real Madrid in the January 2020 transfer window, only for the deal to collapse at the final hurdle. “The club agreed with his agent, his agent was there,” Cosmin Olaroiu, the club’s coach at the time, said. “We agreed with Madrid and, in the last month, Madrid changed their mind.”
The idea of turning China into a global football behemoth ultimately failed, however, but Saudi Arabia sees itself differently.
Saudi will point to what it has achieved already in terms of competing at World Cups and the level of football fandom within a country where 70 per cent of the population is aged under 35.
According to figures in Saudi Arabia, attendances at its football matches have doubled year on year since Ronaldo started playing there in January. Spectators at Al Nassr’s fixtures, including both home and away games, are up 143 per cent year on year.
“When you talk to the clubs, there is a big emphasis on talent and development of the league,” says a source who recently interviewed with a Saudi Pro League side. “They wanted to know how to make their players better, whether that is sending them on loan to Europe or putting them into academies in Europe, how they can improve their sports science and coaching.
“Taking Messi into their league is a PR exercise and at some point that has to level off. It now should be players below that bracket going and not people at the peak of their brands, because they are just wasting money.
“Some players I’ve spoken to admit they would be a little bit scared to go over there because the facilities and sport-science aren’t good enough, even though they know the money would be good. If they (Saudi) can say they have the best training facilities, the best physios and doctors in the world and then add in that the player can earn twice what they make in England, then you would get younger, more promising players going there.”
Beyond training facilities and sport-science, players and their families will have to consider a complete change of lifestyle if they make the move.
Middle Eastern culture is more traditional and conservative, with religion playing a crucial role in how society functions and how people live their lives. Non-married couples are banned from living together and the adherence to strict interpretations of the Islamic faith’s Sharia law renders it illegal to be LGBT+, which is punishable by arrest, lashings, imprisonment, or even death.
Despite social reforms in the past three years allowing women to obtain their own passports, travel abroad and live independently from the permission of a male guardian, their rights remain restricted there, too. Women must obtain permission from a male guardian to get married or have a legal abortion.
Yet it would not come as a surprise if a slew of players follow Ronaldo’s lead and join a Saudi Pro League club.
Whether they are being used as pawns in a game of chess which leads to Saudi hosting the men’s World Cup in 2030 or if they are, as many say, being signed to inspire children there to take up sport and improve the nation’s health, is unclear.
But even if the West’s perception is that players are only going there for the money, that is unlikely to cause sleepless nights in the kingdom.
Many European clubs will certainly be happy to sell to Saudi, particularly if they can extract sizeable transfer fees and reduce their wage bills in the process.
(Top photos of Hugo Lloris, Sergio Busquets and Karim Benzema: Getty Images)