European Exodus: The Growth of Saudi Arabian Football

Read Time:4 Minute, 57 Second

By: Alexandra Huggins

Edited By: Edu Kenedi

In recent history, global club football (or soccer for Americans) has been dominated by European leagues. The best young talent in the world from Africa, Asia, and the Americas flock to European clubs to seek a level of global recognition, salary, and quality of football that has historically not been available in other countries’ leagues. Players like Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona of Argentina, Neymar Jr. and Vinicus Jr. of Brazil, Son Heung-min of South Korea, and Mohamed Salah of Egypt, among countless other players, have come to Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, or France’s Ligue 1 and garnered enormous success and acclaim, strengthening the narrative of Europe as the center of global club football. Clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City have built billion dollar empires and cultivated global fan bases, elevating players into legends and their own clubs into recognizable brands worldwide. However, a Middle Eastern football league, the Saudi Pro League, is attempting to challenge Europe’s dominance, spending billions of dollars to draw global talent to Saudi Arabia and shift international sports focus to the Arabian Peninsula. 

Other global leagues, such as the Chinese Super League, have attempted this feat before but were foiled by a lack of interest by major players and thus a lack of global attention. The Saudi League may have faced the same fate were it not for the arguably biggest name in modern football dedicating the final stages of his career to the league, inspiring a flood of other talent to follow suit. Cristiano Ronaldo, the player many consider to be the best to ever play the sport, as well as the record holder for most goals scored at both the club and international levels and the most followed individual on Instagram, joined the Saudi side Al Nassr in December of 2022, lending considerable legitimacy to the league through his influence alone in a feat that few other players could achieve. 

In the summer transfer window just a few months later, Saudi Arabian teams were inundated with some of Europe’s top talent, with major players leaving Europe’s best clubs for the promise of massive salaries and the chance to spearhead the growth of a league aiming to be the future of the sport. Dozens of players made the move to Saudi Arabia, but huge names such as Neymar Jr., formerly of Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, Karim Benzema of Real Madrid and the 2022 winner of the Ballon D’Or, and N’Golo Kante of Chelsea incited global interest and drew scrutiny onto the league and its teams. 

Although top players choosing to spend the twilight years of their career in leagues outside Europe is not unusual, the sheer scope of the southeastern migration, as well as the relative youth of many of the transfers, is certainly new. The ambition of the league and its teams appears to be unsated, as reports have emerged of Saudi teams making massive offers to current standouts of European teams, with players such as Kylian Mbappe of Paris Saint Germain, Kevin De Bryune of Manchester City, and Mohamed Salah of Liverpool being offered hundreds of millions of dollars to make the move to Saudi Arabia.

 In its recent transfers, the Saudi Pro League spent just over $1 billion in total, coming just second to the Premier League’s $1.39 billion spent. However, teams are continuing to make offers to players that would skyrocket this number even higher. If either proposed transfer had gone through, Kylian Mbappe’s deal at $1.1 billion or Lionel Messi’s deal at $1.6 billion would have easily broken records, although the former elected to stay at PSG and and the 8 time Ballon D’Or winner moved to Inter Miami in the American league. As a result of his deal, Cristiano Ronaldo currently holds the title of the highest paid athlete in the world, with a salary of around $220 million a year. 

In light of the massive bill Saudi Arabia has racked up, they undoubtedly hope to see a return on their investment in both global focus on the league as well as brand investment from international actors. In terms of global attention, the effect has been immediate. On social media, the followings of the various teams have risen exponentially, with Al Nassr’s Instagram rising from less than a million followers to over 10 million immediately after Ronaldo’s signing and sitting at 21 million followers today, outgrowing the social media following of most of Europe’s clubs. The Saudi Pro League has also lined up a slew of deals to broadcast their games internationally to allow global fanbases to watch their favorite players. Subsequently, official league reports state that the league’s revenue alone has increased by 650% in the first month of the 2023-2024 season. According to League leadership, their long term strategy is to “grow off the pitch and to commercialize as well, so the strategy takes in every element that (they) need to focus on to get the Saudi Pro League to where it aspires to be among the top 10 leagues in the world.” 

In the wake of Ronaldo’s highly publicized commitment to the league and the resulting influx of summer transfers, only time will tell if the league continues its exponential growth. Although the quality and influence of the incoming players is immense, the clubs themselves lack the brand and legacy of their European counterparts, who boast storied histories of unparalleled excellence and international success. Ahead of the January transfer window, the football world will be watching to see if Saudi League teams can maintain their momentum and attract more top players to their cause, beginning the long process of building their brands and fan loyalties outside the influence and fan bases of individual players.

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