During their recent transfer window, Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs have set the football world abuzz with a staggering spending spree of nearly one billion dollars. This remarkable splurge, which concluded at the end of 2023, aims to elevate the domestic competition by luring some of the globe’s most prominent players.
Deloitte’s analysis revealed that the Saudi clubs’ outlay of $957 million eclipsed four out of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, with only the Premier League in England surpassing their lavish spending. In this article, we’ll delve into the significance of this spending bonanza, the marquee signings, and the prospects of Saudi football.
Breaking European Dominance
Izzy Wray from Deloitte pointed out, “For the first time since 2016, a non-European league has surpassed spending in any of Europe’s ‘big five’ during a football transfer window.” This monumental shift underscores the ambitious trajectory of Saudi football.
European football remains the global standard, but Saudi Arabia’s substantial investment is poised to pivot the sport’s focus towards infrastructural enhancement, thereby elevating the standard of Asian football.
SPL Director’s Perspective
SPL Director of Football, Michael Emenalo, a former Chelsea stalwart with seven years of experience, expressed optimism in a recent interview with Sky Sports.
He stated, “We look back with great satisfaction that we have put the league in a better place than it was previously.” Emenalo also emphasized the league’s ability to attract and integrate some of the world’s finest players, signifying its newfound prominence.
In 2023, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) unveiled the Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project, involving league champions Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, and several star players.
The most significant transfer came from Al-Hilal, who secured the services of forward Neymar from Paris St. Germain for a staggering 90 million euros ($96.34 million). Al-Hilal also invested substantially in Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Ruben Neves.
On the other hand, SPL champions Al-Ittihad secured Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, and Fabinho. Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr brought Otavio, Sadio Mane, and Aymeric Laporte, among other talents.
Coming off a season in the second division, Al-Ahli made a bold move by making significant signings such as Gabri Veiga, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy, and Alain Saint-Maximin.
Wray highlighted, “The Kingdom’s privatization program is poised to generate considerable interest in the SPL, possibly sustaining the current trend of ambitious spending in future transfer windows.” Saudi clubs are investing in building a sustainable future for football.
Despite their lavish spending, the SPL missed some of their most coveted targets. Al-Ittihad’s attempt to lure Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah with a reported offer of 150 million pounds ($187.10 million) was rebuffed. Ambitious bids from Al-Hilal for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe also fell through. These near-misses highlight the league’s aspirations to compete at the highest level.
A Broader Saudi Vision
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has embarked on massive investments in various sports, including soccer, Formula One, boxing, tennis, and golf. Critics have accused the nation of “sportswashing” to divert attention from human rights concerns.
Emenalo dismissed these allegations, asserting that there was no clear evidence suggesting anything other than a desire to establish one of the premier leagues globally, aiming to offer top-notch entertainment and serve as a model of leadership for the people of Saudi Arabia.