Back in January, Cristiano Ronaldo shocked the world when he made the decision to sign for Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr, accepting a $75 million-per-year contract in the process.
It was officially the end of an era when news broke on June 7 that Lionel Messi would be leaving Europe too, instead to join MLS club Inter Miami CF.
The two undisputed GOATs of modern football, no longer starring for Europe’s top clubs. Just like that.
Just 5 months after Cristiano’s arrival in the Middle East, and a number of other players are also ditching Europe to try something new.
The destination? Hint: it’s not the 305. Big names are choosing to follow the Portuguese captain to the Saudi Pro League rather than have a taste at some soccer.
We know these clubs are offering huge contracts to attract players to their league, but this wasn’t happening as often before CR7 left for Saudi Arabia. Players are flocking to the country, and some are openly stating that the sole reason they are signing for the club is because of the cash.
"I can't deny it, I'm going to Arabia for the money. I will be able to help my whole family to live well, from my parents to my cousins," Kalidou Koulibaly said, who recently left Chelsea for Al Hilal.
Is Ronaldo’s influence this strong, or is it solely because of the millions? Being the most followed human being on Instagram and an idol to millions of football fans, we can’t help but think it’s the former.
It doesn’t seem like anybody (that isn’t a former teammate of his) is intent on following Messi to the United States. But then again, the contracts that Saudi clubs are offering are way beyond what any MLS team could ever conjure up, let alone for a superstar.
So perhaps it’s a bit of both? Keep reading as we analyze the contracts of some of the many players that have been successfully tempted by a couple extra zeros in their football contracts to settle in Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of football fans have been letting their feelings be known when it comes to this Saudi Arabian transfer frenzy. And the common denominator in all the criticisms is none other than Cristiano Ronaldo.
Near the turn of the year, his shock move to Al Nassr was announced. Upon putting pen to paper, he instantly became the highest-paid athlete in history, with his annual salary reported to be about $214 million a year.
That total number actually consists of two parts: a football salary of about $75 million, and commercial/sponsorship deals that add the other $139 million. Who wouldn’t say yes?
Ronaldo’s decision to leave his illustrious European career behind may have been hard to swallow for many football fans, considering all he has done in his long career. But the reality is that the man is 38 years old and left his prime years ago.
At the end of the day, there wasn’t much entirely wrong with this choice. He will likely retire within the next few years, and what better way to prepare for that milestone than to rack up nearly a quarter of a billion in the span of 2 ½ years?
Plus, nobody ever said he couldn’t just come back to Europe after his Al Nassr contract is up for one last dance.
Ronaldo shouldn’t be the one to blame for the loads of top players linking up with Saudi clubs. After all, it's not his fault that he’s the most recognizable man in the world. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he will naturally be mimicked.
The truth is, these Saudi Arabian billions already existed decades in advance. These clubs were simply waiting for the right moment to splash it. And Cristiano Ronaldo happened to be the man to start the inevitable trend.
Here’s the breakdown. If you didn’t already know, Saudi Arabia is a rich country, a really rich one in fact. The Saudi government owns a wealth fund company called PIF (the Public Investment Fund), essentially an insanely large savings account for the country that consists of over $650 billion.
The money is typically used for investment purposes, so whenever the country feels like buying something for whatever reason at all, they’ll grab from this pot.
The thing about the PIF is that they happen to take 75% ownership of each of the four biggest clubs in the Saudi Pro League: Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr. This means that it’s not just the individual clubs that are making these big-name signings come to reality; the entire Saudi government is in on it, too.
Once one of these four clubs target a certain player, they secure the millions that they need from the PIF to make it happen.
An important detail is that, unlike in Europe, financial fair play rules do not exist, meaning the SPL can spend as much as they’d like on players and salaries without any issues.
The same PIF is also behind the 2022 launch of LIV Golf, which left no choice to PGA Tour and DP World Tour but to propose a deal with the Saudi-founded league and work under one entity in order to unite the golf world once and for all.
Oh, and they also own Premier League club Newcastle United.
*Originally announced in early June, the golf merger is still pending as of July 3rd, 2023.
It’s really not that far-fetched of an accusation. Funny enough, the topic of money in football has been floating around for so long, so a situation like this isn’t entirely shocking.
Whether it’s PSG splashing their millions on players like Neymar and Mbappe, or the classic memes accusing Manchester City of being an “oil club” (which isn’t false by the way 😅) and proceeding to attribute all of their achievements to their riches, money has always been the leading subject matter in football.
What makes Saudi Arabia’s case different has to do with their reputation. They are heavily criticized as being a country with several human rights violations and strict laws restricting LGBTQ+ activity. And it wasn’t until recently that a number of strict laws regarding what Saudi women can and can’t do were abolished.
Long story short, Saudi Arabia has been accused of using their heavy investments in sports to change their public perception. So far, it seems like it’s working.
The country has publicly stated one thing in regards to the topic, though. It’s that their spending is to encourage more residents to become athletes and join their local programs to boost the overall love for sport in Saudi Arabia. However, it has been reported that their true end goal is to one day host a men’s FIFA World Cup, which makes plenty of sense.
That being said, it’s hard to say that the country is ruining football as we know it. Maybe specifying European football is a bit more accurate, but even that’s too much. Yeah, they may have swiped up a number of superstars, but it’s not like they had much time left at the highest level anyways.
Of course, there are some exceptions of players that are heading to the SPL at quite a young age compared to someone like Ronaldo. Ruben Neves, who signed to Al Hilal from Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers, is only 26. Celtic winger Jota is reportedly near completing a move to Al-Ittihad; he’s 24.
The bottom line is that none of these transfers will have a lasting impact on the European game. Simply put, a lot more would have to happen for a compelling argument to be formed.
Let’s take a look at the deals of some of the players that have put pen to paper for Saudi’s top clubs. 👇
*All figures are estimates. Salary totals include commercial/sponsorship deals.
Key: 📅 = Date contract signed, Transfer fee = 🏷️, Salary = 💰
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