Saudi Arabia's incredible summer with SPL clubs spending over £750m

Saudi Arabia’s incredible summer transfer window: Pro League clubs spent more than £750m and attracted global stars… but European league chiefs still insist the country’s top flight poses ‘no danger’ to the established order

  • The Saudi Pro League went on a major recruitment drive during the summer 
  • Several global stars moved to the Middle East as clubs spent more than £750m
  • Listen to the latest episode of Mail Sport’s podcast It’s All Kicking Off 

Clubs in Europe breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday night when the Saudi Pro League (SPL) transfer window finally closed.

It will be hard to remember 2023 as anything other than the Saudi summer as a new footballing machine powered onto the scene and signed a whole host of world class and Premier League stars.

The next few years promise to be intriguing as we find out whether this summer was just a one-off or, as is more likely, the Middle East becomes a rival destination for top flight teams across Europe when courting players.

European chiefs continue to insist that the SPL recruitment drive doesn’t pose a danger to the continent’s footballing landscape, but the league was second only to the Premier League in spending this summer with an outlay of more than £750million.

In some ways, this has provided a rest bite for English clubs when battling FFP considerations, with the SPL almost acting as a ‘cash-cow’ – as demonstrated by Chelsea selling unwanted stars such as Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy to Saudi clubs for a combined £36m.

The Saudi transfer window finally closed on Thursday after a summer full of heavy spending

Several big-name stars joined the league, including Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema

The likes of Sadio Mane also moved to the Middle East as he joined up with Ronaldo at Al-Nassr 

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Much of the incessant spending was mainly restricted to four teams – Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.

That is because they were all taken over by the country’s Public Investment Fund in June – the same backer that also owns Newcastle – and all four have strengthened significantly.

Former Liverpool favourite Sadio Mane joined Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr, while they have also added other stars including Croatian midfielder Marcelo Brozovic, former Man United left back Alex Telles, Aymeric Laporte, Otavio and Seko Fofana.

Last year’s champions Al-Ittihad – who are coached by ex-Tottenham and Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo – look like the early favourites for the title again having brought in Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema along with N’Golo Kante and Fabinho.

Newly-promoted Al-Ahli signed Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez, Mendy, Franck Kessie and Allan Saint-Maximin and have already shown their mouthwatering attacking credentials with 10 goals in five games.

Meanwhile, the most decorated Saudi club is Al-Hilal and they made an early splash in the market by securing deals for Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves.

However, they also secured what could be the biggest move in the window by adding Neymar from PSG for £78m before handing the Brazilian an eye-watering £260m two-year deal, while Aleksandar Mitrovic also arrived from Fulham.

Of the £750m-plus outlay, more than £680m was splashed by the four PIF-owned clubs which is not surprising given they are backed by a fund worth an estimated £538bn.

Deals were still taking place right up until the transfer deadline, with Luiz Felipe’s £21.5m move from Real Betis to Al-Ittihad and Demarai Gray’s £8m switch from Everton to Al-Ettifaq the major deals on the final day.

For Al-Ettifaq, while they aren’t owned by the PIF, they have still managed to lure some big names this summer due to their backing from Saudi Arabia’s Basic Industries Corporation, which is the kingdom’s second-biggest petrochemicals company.

They added Jordan Henderson, Moussa Dembele and Jack Hendry on mega wages, with Henderson reportedly earning £700,000 per-week.

They also managed to entice Steven Gerrard to the Middle East, before adding Gray and Georginio Wijnaldum in the final throes of the window as they look to improve upon last season’s seventh-place finish.

Al-Ittihad are favourites for the title again after adding Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho 

Steven Gerrard was lured to Al-Ettifaq, as was Jordan Henderson, who is earning mega wages

In what is looking like an increasingly positive outlook for the league and it’s appeal, there has also been a move over the summer towards a younger profile of recruits.

An early criticism of the transfer drive was that Ronaldo is 38, Henderson is 33, while Kante, Mahrez and Koulibaly are all 32, with a limited number of stars arguably in their peak.

However, the arrival of Saint-Maximin, Malcom, Neves and Felipe – with the quartet all 26 – shows the league’s strength, while the signing of 21-year-old Spanish starlet Gabri Veiga despite interest from some top European clubs was a statement of intent.

It is hard to look past the four PIF-owned clubs when examining who came out of the window best, particularly when viewing the top 10 net spenders across the world.

Al-Hilal were ranked first, just ahead of PSG, with Al-Ahli third, Chelsea fourth, Arsenal fifth and Al-Nassr sixth. 

In truth, the summer transfer window is the latest evidence of Saudi’s global footballing profile being transformed over the past 12 months.

While it has always had a long and rich tradition as a football nation, with the kingdom having reached six of the past eight World Cups, the addition of Ronaldo and their victory over Argentina in Qatar last year, along with the plethora of star names plying their trade in the SPL has taken their reputation to new levels.

The only blot on the success of their window is perhaps that they failed to lure three main targets – Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah – with the trio either remaining at their clubs or in the case of Messi, choosing to move elsewhere to a rival league in the MLS.

However, with Salah, is does feel as if he will inevitably end up in the Middle East, with Mail Sport reporting how Al-Ittihad believe their pursuit to sign the Egyptian is merely on hold after the Reds rejected a £150m offer for their talisman last week.

We’ll have to wait and see how the SPL develops in the coming years and whether it follows in the footsteps of the Chinese Super League or, as league executive desire, truly becomes one of the best leagues in the world and ends the dominance of European football.

Cristiano Ronaldo was the first big name to move to Saudi when he joined Al-Nassr last year

Mohamed Salah stayed at Liverpool, but it feels as if he will inevitably move to the Middle East

But, whatever their ambitions, European chiefs will seemingly continue to ignore the perceived threat the SPL poses.

‘I don’t think there is a danger,’ European Club Association chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi said this week.

‘We believe in ourselves. We have the best and biggest competitions and the best players. It is not for me to judge what is happening outside of Europe. But listen, most of the clubs sold players to them. If we are not happy, why do we sell our players to them? That’s the truth.

‘Is it dangerous? I told you my opinion. If there is a danger, the European clubs will not be quiet. So far, I don’t see any danger.’

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