After hosting the 2022 World Cup and convincing Cristiano Ronaldo to join top-flight side Al-Nassr, the profile of football in Saudi Arabia has never been higher.
Ronaldo’s decision to play his football in the Saudi Pro League following the cancellation of his contract with Manchester United helped bring millions of eyeballs to the country’s top competition.
Almost as soon as the move was announced, foreign countries that had never before shown an interest in the league were scrambling to get broadcast deals in place so fans could watch the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in action.
For the first time, Saudi Arabian domestic matches are being beamed into homes in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria and Switzerland – and it’s all off the back of Ronaldo’s arrival.
Understandably, then, Saudi football chiefs have been keen to recruit more star power to further boost the global appeal of the competition.
Little secret has been made of their desire to land Argentina captain Lionel Messi on a similar mega-money deal to that which they handed Ronaldo back in December.
However, the country’s Ministry of Sport is reportedly hoping to do plenty more business this summer, regardless of whether they are able to sign the Paris Saint-Germain superstar – whose current contract with the Ligue 1 champions expires at the end of the season.
Messi might be the biggest name about to become a free agent, but he heads an exciting list of top talent who are set to be available for absolutely nothing come June 30.
The likes of Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, Manchester City’s Ilkay Gundogan and Wolves’ Adama Traore will be able to move to any club they wish on that date – and the acquisition of such free agents is reportedly a major objective for the Saudi Pro League over the summer.
According to ESPN, the Ministry of Sport is confident that ‘the financial difficulties being experienced by clubs throughout Europe have created an opportunity for Saudi Pro League teams to recruit high-quality players’.
How many foreign players can each Saudi Pro League team have in their squad?
Each of the 16 Saudi Pro League teams is allowed to have eight foreign players on their books – of which seven may feature in a matchday squad.
There aren’t many spare slots at the moment, as the majority of clubs already have their full quota of overseas players under contract.
With that said, a source close to the league confirmed that they expect the ‘wave of publicity generated by Ronaldo’ to help secure foreign players of greater quality as teams look to overhaul their squads.
In total, the report suggests that Saudi chiefs are looking to add a total of 50 players from across Europe’s big five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) as well as Portugal’s Primeira Liga. It is intended that the majority of those new signings will be players who are out-of-contract with their current clubs.
Foreign players warned not to expect ‘outlandish deals’ if they make the switch to Saudi Arabia
While the Gulf state was willing to spend heavily to sign Ronaldo – and are expected to do the same in an effort to land Messi – ESPN’s source had a warning for European players dreaming of a massive payday with a move to Saudi Arabia.
“This won’t be like the Chinese league a few years ago,” the source insisted. “It isn’t a fire-hose strategy of blowing huge sums of money. Saudi Arabia is in a period of rapid transition and football is a mass participation sport with a huge following, as shown during the World Cup in Qatar, and the ambition is to grow the Saudi Pro League into the best in the region.”
Despite those words of caution, the growing influence of the Middle East in football cannot be understated.
Whereas Europe was once the only major destination for the world’s best players, Saudi Arabia is beginning to build an infrastructure that might soon be able to challenge that notion.