The summer soccer transfer market has been of great interest around the world. The transfer window always produces headlines as players move to different clubs but there was something different about the 2023 summer transfer window.
We are used to seeing the English Premier League clubs flashing the cash and attracting many of the big name players. The likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich also spend money but nothing has been able to rival the Premier League for spending power. However, in 2023 we witnessed the emergence of the Saudi Pro League. Do Middle Eastern clubs now pose a real threat to the Premier League?
Saudi Pro League
The Saudi Pro League created headlines when Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in January 2023. Ronaldo signed the most lucrative contract in football history, worth €200 million per year. There were also reports Ronaldo was paid a signing on fee of around €100 million.
At the time, there was not much thought given to the possibility of more players joining the Saudi Pro League from Europe and disrupting the Premier League summer transfer window. However, this summer we have seen many of the world’s biggest names move to the Saudi Arabia, including Sadio Mané from Bayern Munich, Riyad Mahrez from Manchester City, and Neymar from Paris Saint-Germain.
French winger Allan Saint-Maximin left Newcastle United plus former Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino and ex-Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy having joined him at Al-Ahli. Other big name players to move to the Saudi Pro League this summer include Jordan Henderson, Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante, Fabinho, Marcelo Brozovic, and Aymeric Laporte.
There is no doubt the Saudi Pro League are attracting well-known players from Premier League clubs and taking players who could have joined a Premier League team this summer.
The age of the players making the move to the Middle East must be considered when debating if the clubs are posing a threat to the Premier League. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo is 38, Karim Benzema is 35, Sadio Mané is 31, Roberto Firmino is 31, N'Golo Kante is 32, and Neymar is 31. These are not young, up and coming players, they are players who are coming to the end of their careers.
So, in that respect, the Middle Eastern clubs are not really posing a threat to the Premier League. The most concerning deals of the summer are the ones involving Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ruben Neves. Milinkovic-Savic is 28 years old and Neves is 26. Both players have previously been linked with moves to big Premier League clubs but instead opted to move to the Saudi Pro League.
If it were only players over 30 making the switch from Europe to the Saudi Pro League, Premier League clubs would not be worried but if there are more transfers involving players in their mid-20s or younger, alarm bells will start ringing.
The same practice of buying ageing stars is what has happened previously in China, Japan, Australia, and United States. Neither have developed as being a strong opposition to the Premier League when it comes to attracting the young stars of the game. However, it is worth remembering that the Premier League also started by attracting older players from abroad before the big money television deals allowed them to dominate the transfer market.
The Future of Middle Eastern Football
There appears to be no authority overseeing the spending of clubs in the Saudi Pro League and they could keep spending huge sums without any financial fair play rules in place to stop them.
Should the likes of Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli become an option for big name players such as Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland, they will begin to attract an audience. Fans will always support their clubs but also want to watch the best players in the world. Bayern Munich dominate in Germany while PSG consistently lead the way in France.
If we have a title race in Saudi Arabia involving multiple clubs and top players, it is going to attract a lot of attention. Fans can now wager on many low deposit betting sites if they are looking to have a cheeky bet on the Saudi Pro League rather than the Premier League because it is more interesting than seeing Manchester City dominate.
Right now, Middle Eastern clubs are not a massive threat to the Premier League but as soon as they begin to attract younger players, then it will become a huge problem.