What Team Will Win The Saudi Pro League?
In total, there are 18 football teams that all compete in the Saudi Pro League, each of which has steadily seen its status improve over the last year. Certainly the past two transfer windows have highlighted just exactly the impact that this league could have on the sport over the next few years.
Essentially kicking off with Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer in January to Al Nassr, this has led to an almost domino effect, which really saw the ante upped over the summer.
Indeed, four in particular are worth paying attention to. With these all owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (amounting to nearly £1 trillion), it means that Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Nassr and Al Ahli are now considered to be four of the most intriguing clubs in world football
This has been reflected throughout the summer which saw an influx of star players join these clubs for sizable fees, lucrative contracts or both. It also illustrates the potential lineups for each of these clubs; essentially, when any two of them play each other you may be forgiven for thinking it is like watching two Real Madrid clubs filled with ‘Galacticos’.
While each of these four clubs essentially have unlimited resources, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t others in the country that do not have the wealth – just not to the same level. Indeed, Steven Gerrard was tempted with a lucrative offer to manage Al Ettifaq, while he was also given money to spend, which attracted former Liverpool teammate Jordan Henderson as his first signing, before Georginio Wijnaldum (also former Liverpool) joined from PSG.
All things considered, the ex-Liverpool skipper was backed in the transfer window by his new club, with four major new signings arriving for around £25 million. Former Celtic striker Moussa Dembele was a good addition from Lyon, while Scottish centre back Jack Hendry arrived from Club Brugge. Despite all of this though, it is highly unlikely that Al-Ettifaq will be able to compete with the four PIF clubs. At least, not on paper.
Below we have analysed the chances of various clubs in the Saudi league to determine how much of an effect they may have over the next few years.
The club that Ronaldo joined in January 2023, it appeared that they had got one over on their rivals, however, this has all changed in the summer, with the others catching up. This, though, did not stop Al-Nassr from doing further business, looking to improve further.
As such, approximately £160 million was further invested in the playing squad, with a number of star names arriving that will significantly boost the club’s chances. Sadio Mane’s move from Bayern Munich was one of the most eye-catching deals, after joining for £25 million. However, midfielder Marcelo Brozovic made the switch from Inter Milan for £15 million, while late in the transfer window Aymeric Laporte joined from Manchester City for just over £23 million.
Certainly these three signings alone are enough to indicate a sensational transfer window; arguably the base of a spine running through the middle of the team, though their business didn’t stop there.
In came talented midfielder Seko Fofana from Lens for £20 million, while the £55 million signing of attacker Otavio from Porto represented a significant eye-opener. Meanwhile, a very good window was capped off with the acquisition of Manchester United left-back, Alex Telles for just over £3 million.
Add these to the goal-scoring force of Ronaldo and it is fair to say that Al Nassr have made a strong signal of intent over the summer. If he and Mane can forge a good relationship in attack; there are two world class finishers there, backed up by the assists of Otavio and reinforced in midfield by Brozovic and Fofana, these are the makings of a very good team. Laporte is a quality signing at centre back with Telles to the left of him. January will be intriguing.
The second Public Investment Fund owned club broke the Saudi transfer record in the summer of 2023 to bring in 31-year-old forward Neymar from PSG for £85 million. At this point, the club had already made a substantial investment in the squad with some incredible marquee signings.
Long sought-after central midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic was snapped up from Lazio for £35 million, with multiple Premier League clubs having courted him over the last couple of years. Meanwhile, there were also three coups from the English top flight. After just one season at Chelsea, centre back, Kalidou Koulibaly was brought in for £15 million, Ruben Neves joined from Wolves for £50 million, while Aleksandar Mitrovic joined his Serbian teammate Milinkovic-Savic in a deal worth a shade over £45 million from Fulham.
Throw Brazilian forward Malcom into the mix who joined from Zenit St Petersburg for £55 million and then goalkeeper Bono who arrived from Sevilla for nearly £10 million, that represents very good business. A total outlay of approximately £340 million though, is one of the biggest transfer expenditures of any club in history.
It should be noted that prior to signing Neymar, the club had a record-breaking £250 million bid accepted by PSG, though the player refused to enter into talks. Despite this, there is a very good attacking force if they can gel, while the midfield duo of Milinkovic-Savic and Neves can form a very effective partnership.
Another club that had a very intriguing transfer window, Al-Ahli spent just over £180 million on a clutch of talented players, with a number of additions joining from the Premier League. Arguably the most notable was Roberto Firmino, with the Brazilian forward joining from Liverpool on a free transfer. Meanwhile, goalkeeper Edouard Mendy joined from Chelsea for £15 million, winger Allan Saint-Maximin was a £25 million addition from Newcastle United and fellow wide man Riyad Mahrez raised eyebrows with a £30 million move from Manchester City.
Serie A centre backs Ibanez and Mehdi Demiral joined for £25 million and £15 million from Roma and Atlanta respectively, midfielder Franck Kessi made his way from Barcelona for £10 million and highly talented Spanish attacker, Gabri Veiga rounded off a successful window when he joined for £35 million from Celta Vigo.
It could be said that Al-Ahlihad one of the most balanced transfer windows of any of the big four clubs in the Saudi Pro League having made acquisitions in key areas. While they did not have anyone of note prior to the window opening, they look particularly strong in defence, especially with Mendy in goal. Kessie and Veiga add a combination of steel and flair (respectively) to the midfield and if Mahrez, Saint-Maximin and Firmino can gel, that is potentially a very effective forward line.
Having had a £150 million bid for Liverpool attacker Mohammed Salah rejected on transfer deadline day, this would have sent a major statement around the league and arguably would have been the marquee signing of the window.
As it is, Al-Ittihad only spent £80 million, however, striker Karim Benzema joined on a free transfer from Real Madrid, which was complemented by the £40 million capture of midfielder Fabinho from Liverpool, while Portuguese winger Jota joined for approximately £25 million from Celtic. Adding midfield enforcer N’Golo Kante on a free transfer from Chelsea may prove to be an astute addition.
Despite being the 2023 champions of the Saudi Pro League, it will be intriguing to see if their lack of activity in the transfer window compared to their rivals could affect their ability to continue to dominate.
There will be a lot of pressure on Benzema to replicate his blistering form from Real Madrid, though Fabinho (if he can stay fit) and Kante add a lot to their midfield.
2023 Summer Expenditure ‘Big Four’ Saudi Clubs
What Impact Will The Saudi Pro League Have On World Football?
One thing that is clear about Saudi Arabia, is that it is a major global force which is going to impact many industries around the world over the next few years. Sport is one of these; something that we have already seen on the golfing scene.
For the next two or three seasons certainly, astronomical transfer fees are likely to become the ‘norm’, while it will not be a surprise to also see the first ‘£1 million-a-week’ player in the Saudi Pro League as well.
While currently, only four clubs are seen to be changing the game in the league, this could well change over the next couple of years as more capital becomes available as more investors realise the potential of investing their billions into a Saudi Pro League club.
It could also be the case that the league has a careful plan when it comes to establishing itself as a global football force. In the short term, the big players from Europe will increase the interest in the league from around the world and, as a result, attract major advertising and media deals.
Behind the scenes, what is likely is that the league will invest in grassroots to attract the best coaches from Europe to not only work in the Pro League, but also at lower levels which could even see the creation of youth football facilities. In addition to this, we may also see specialist coaching schools and the best coaches brought in from around the world to coach aspiring Saudi coaches. As a result, in 10 years, should this blueprint be followed, it would mean that the country (and Pro League)can be sustainable, eradicating the need to make extravagant signings and develop their own talent.
In the same way that England did 20 years ago; investing in grassroots to develop better homegrown quality, this is something that has started to pay-off at senior national level.
Also, the Asian version of the Champions League (ACL) could see Saudi Arabia begin to make its mark, especially considering the number of flagship players that have been signed during the 2023 summer transfer window. In 2021, Al-Hilal won this, while in 2022, the Urawa Red Diamonds were the victors, however, this title could well be shared between each of the four PIF-owned Saudi clubs for the foreseeable future considering the investment that has been made.
The Club World Cup may also become more intriguing. Historically it has been mostly the European Champions League winners that have held this title, though Saudi clubs may put up more of a challenge now.
Can Clubs From Europe Continue To Compete With The Saudi Pro League?
Over the last decade we have seen numerous countries from around the world try to compete with clubs in Europe, due to having numerous investments which started to attract a crop of big players, though this has been short-lived. First there was Zenit St Petersburg in Russia that flexed their financial muscles, with the club having surplus capital, while the Chinese league was the next to follow. Meanwhile the MLS (US) was arguably the first league to do this, which continues to be sustainable, though it has never reached the global heights that was initially expected.
However, due to economic uncertainties over the last few years, the popularity of these clubs (particularly in China), has quickly dwindled and it appears that Saudi Arabia is the next country that is primed to make its mark on world football.
One thing that it does appear to have is the economic ability to make this happen, if the right strategy is applied. Attracting major players does not appear to be an issue; of course there will always be some instances where players want to stay in Europe to try and win the Champions League; Mbappe being a case-in-point.
PSG appear to have changed their strategy, veering away from signing ‘Galacticos’ to adopting a different approach – acquiring young players with the potential to become world class, as a result, fitting ‘round pegs in round holes’. While the club is still arguably one of the richest in the world (now eclipsed by Newcastle United), £100 million+ acquisitions may be a thing of the past now.
European clubs with a rich history will still always have an appeal to most of the top players; the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, plus a host of Premier League clubs being prime examples.
What Could We See Happen In The Future?
Like any country that has emerged as an economic powerhouse, it becomes increasingly hard to predict what might happen – even in the short term, though the amount of influence that the Saudi Public Investment Fund currently has could be a major indicator.
The almost £1 trillion that it has available from oil sales over the last few years represents significant opportunities in numerous industries, while it is highly likely, that due to investments that are made, this figure may easily double or triple over the next few years.
Football may have a major impact on this. Having invested over half a billion on major football talent in the 2023 transfer window, this is merely a drop in the water and is likely to attract multiple advertising and media deals from around the world. It would not come as a surprise if even a quarter (a modest estimate) of the amount spent has already been replaced and this number could quickly rise.
The major key for the Saudi Pro League is being able to attract global audiences, which will be determined on the impact that these new players have.
If the last couple of months are anything to go on, the Saudi Pro League (especially those clubs owned by the PIF), could well have a considerable influence on world football over the next few years and further transfer windows certainly inspire intrigue.