Saudi Arabia first qualified for the FIFA World Cup in 1994. Its sixth and latest attempt came during last year's World Cup in Qatar. And on 22nd November 2022, they shook the world with a 'David beats Goliath' performance over eventual tournament winners Argentina in the group-stage fixture.
But, the shock waves sent by the Middle Eastern country of over 32 million people were only about to begin.
Enter, the Saudi Pro League.
A revamped league — which has been around for 47 years — armed with Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth is now flexing its muscles against Europe's centuries-old dominance at club football.
It all began when five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo signed a two-and-a-half-year contract with Saudi club Al-Nassr in December, moving from English giants Manchester United. The transfer caught headlines and paved the way for others to join the league.
On Tuesday, Brazilian footballer Neymar became the latest player to take up an offer to play in the Saudi Pro League, making him just one of the several big names that have completed the move from Europe's top leagues to the Middle East.
The sudden exodus of players has raised a stir in the footballing world, with supporters of the sport criticising the amount of money that Saudi Arabia has invested, as it aspires to make the Saudi Pro League one of the top competitions in the world.
In June, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, Public Investment Fund (PIF), announced that it was acquiring a 75 per cent stake in four of the country's top clubs- Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Hilal. Unsurprisingly, these four clubs are the ones that have attracted the most number of players during this transfer window.
It was only in 2015 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman privatised the country's football clubs which used to depend on the kingdom's funding until then. The move was aimed at bringing in endorsements and revenue via the sport to diversify the Arab nation's economy.
Eight years later, the PIF is back pumping in more money than ever.
While the end goal might still be the same, it is now a small part of a much broader takeover.
From the perspective of the players, a move to Saudi Arabia fetches them a once-in-a-lifetime wage package, making it a key factor in what's best for their careers.
For established players like Karim Benzema (35), Jordan Henderson (33), N'golo Kante (32) and Riyad Mahrez (32) — who are entering the final phase of their careers — a move to Saudi Arabia is not only financially beneficial but comes with far lesser physical demands and competition than they've had to deal with in Europe every week.
However, the Saudis' ability to attract younger players who are around their 'athletic prime' has been an eye-catching statement of intent. The transfers of Sergej Milinković-Savić (28), Seko Fofana (28), Moussa Dembélé (27), Franck Kessié (26), Ruben Neves (26) and Filipe Jota (24) to Saudi-backed clubs have been driven by the chance to earn big money — for the players and their respective clubs —despite their ability attract good offers from legacy European clubs.
Meanwhile, the Saudi interest has also come in handy for Europe's top clubs to offload players who are surplus to requirements and balance their books to avoid violating UEFA's Financial Fair Play rules.
Chelsea, which has been on a shopping spree and breaking transfer records, used the Saudis' deep pockets to offload players like Kante, Kalidou Koulibaly and Édouard Mendy — who were neither part of the club's plans nor in a position to attract suitable offers in Europe. Similarly, Barcelona — who are in an ocean of financial trouble — used the sale of Kessie to manage their turbulent books.
The never-ending transfers and the profile of those players opting to move to Saudi Arabia highlight the Middle East nation's ambition to become one of the world's top footballing destinations. Improving the quality of the league and developing grassroots infrastructure has to be the long-term strategy to achieve that. But, in the short term, luring high-profile players will have its benefits on and off the field.
In an interview with CNN, Michael Emenalo, the Saudi Pro League's director of football, said that the league is "disrupting" the footballing industry to "add value" to it and asserted that the league has been "set up to welcome everyone."
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has flayed Saudi Arabia's decision to lure players with huge offers as a mistake. "They should invest in academies, bring their own coaches and develop their own players. The system of buying players that are almost at the end of their career is not the system that develops football," he said.
Can the mouthwatering payday lure everyone?
At one point the PIF-backed Al Hilal made an audacious attempt to sign Kylian Mbappe — arguably the game's biggest star going forward — who was engaged in a spat with his club PSG over his contract status and a potential free transfer to Real Madrid next summer.
The offer was too good to be true that it broke social media with top NBA stars LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo jokingly offering to sign up for the Saudis. However, the financial bait was not enough for one of football's highest earners, who would never leave the elite competition that Europe offers — especially not at the age of 24.
Argentine legend Lionel Messi, arguably the most high-profile free agent this summer, also rejected a lucrative offer from the Saudis and left for the US joining the David Beckham-owned Major League Soccer (MLS) club Inter Miami. His former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets also followed suit to reject a Saudi deal to reunite with the Argentine in Miami.
While Messi did sign a fairly substantial deal to join the Beckham-owned club, it was nothing close to what the Saudis offered him, which reportedly exceeded one billion dollars over three years. Despite offering lower wages than the Saudis, Inter Miami instead offered him a seat at the table by giving him equity in the club and his willingness to sign with them brought Apple, Adidas and MLS merchandise partner Fanatics into the conversation — with all three entering into a revenue sharing agreement with the Argentine.
The last time MLS bent over backwards to accommodate a football star, it was to bring David Beckham to the US. The league offered him a cushy handout to set up an MLS franchise as part of his agreement, which eventually turned out to be Inter Miami. This kind of clout and mainstream brand exposure is much easier to access when living in Western democracies with liberalised economies. Saudi Arabia, which continues to be notorious for its human rights record, will have to make do with its infinite money chest as brands will stay away due to the threat of public backlash over potential partnerships.
Meanwhile, Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes, Inter Milan forward Lautaro Martinez and Real Madrid's Luka Modric were among the other major stars who rejected the PIF money in favour of competing in football's most prestigious competitions in Europe. Similarly, French forwards Ousmane Dembele and Moussa Diaby also rebuffed Saudi offers to move to clubs across Europe with Diaby joining English club Aston Villa and Dembele joining PSG.
These rejections, despite marquee signings, highlight how the legacy associated with competing for the UEFA Champions League and top-flight domestic leagues such as the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and Bundesliga among others will always be a barrier for the Saudi Pro League to disrupt.
Does money win over morality?
And then there's Jordan Henderson.
At 33, the Liverpool skipper has won all possible club honours at Anfield but faced a massive backlash after he chose to move to Al-Ettifaq. In plain view, the move makes sense for an athlete at the end of his career who can keep earning big money with a reduced workload.
But the problem arises when you realise that Henderson has been a big advocate for the LGBTQ+ community and has been a vocal supporter of the Premier League’s Rainbow Laces campaign and inclusion in the game. He has now moved to a country where same-sex relations are outlawed and members of the community are viciously persecuted by the state and its citizens.
Paul Amann, founder of Liverpool’s official LGBT+ Fans Group Kop Outs, called out Henderson by stating that his decision to join Al-Ettifaq had "flown in the face" of the values he had previously "championed publicly."
"Your choice to side with our oppressors has seen most of (our) members absolutely shocked and angry. Many find this choice unforgivable.....Your failure to keep to the principles you championed leaves you much diminished," Amann wrote in his open letter to Henderson via the Liverpool Echo.
The Liverpool skipper's decision has left LGBTQ+ rights activists disappointed and has reaffirmed the age-old saying 'money talks louder than words'.
Sportswashing or soft power?
On the other hand, while Saudi Arabia claims to be trying to mark a new era in the country's football and even sporting chapter, critics have alleged that the investments are just a form of 'sportswashing' done by the country to distract the public from its poor human rights record and its years-long war in Yemen.
For example, in 2018, Saudi Arabia drew international criticism after Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is the de facto Saudi leader, is accused of ordering Khashoggi's assassination. During this period, numerous international corporations paused and even withdrew business ties with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi could be trying to "wash" away such criticism and has identified football as a popular product that allows them to engage with business in the West.
So far the PIF has bankrolled events like the global professional golf league LIV Golf, Saudi GP with Formula 1 and high-profile boxing fights where boxers and promoters are backed by the Saudis’ massive wealth. The sovereign wealth fund has also bought into Premier League club Newcastle United as it aims to use sports as a soft power.
These moves are also part of the kingdom's overarching gambit under the 'Vision 2030' project designed to transition away from its oil-dependent economy.
What to expect this season and beyond?
The revamped Saudi Pro League began its latest campaign on August 11. With marquee players coming in, the league has also announced a slew of broadcast deals in more than 130 markets worldwide, excluding the US. The next step will be to create a broadcast spectacle that is capable of luring fans to tune in every week. The pomp has arrived and now the circumstance has to follow suit.
The investments made so far, point to the fact that the Saudi Pro League is here to challenge the European hegemony and will continue to disrupt the status quo.
The league will also give the Saudis a confidence boost as it aims to follow Qatar's footsteps and become only the second nation from the region to host the FIFA World Cup — if or when the time arrives.
With the foundation being laid, the kingdom's pilot project will need to show the world that the Pro League can rise to become an alternative to Europe's top league. Turning into a Middle East version of the MLS — which has earned a reputation for being the last payday for stars before retirement — or the Chinese Super League — which once tried to lure European stars with lucrative wages only to unravel — will be seen as an inglorious failure after all the cash splurge.
Will the league find global success? The next three years will paint the picture.
The high-profile transfers so far this season
Neymar became the latest player to join the Saudi Pro League, completing a move to Al Hilal after six seasons at Paris Saint-Germain. The clubs reached an agreement on transfer fees of USD 98 million. Neymar signed a two-year contract that will see him earn approximately 80 million euros per season.
The 2022 Ballon d'Or holder joined Al Ittihad on a three-year contract, during which he will earn approximately 200 million euros per season.
World Cup and Champions League winner N'golo Kante joined his French teammate Benzema at Al Ittihad on a four-year deal, earning approximately 100 million euros per season.
Algerian Riyad Mahrez joined Al-Ahli from English champions Manchester City after a treble-winning season, for a transfer fee of USD 38 million. He will earn approximately 52 million euros per season.
Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson joined Al Ettifaq on a two-year contract, for a transfer fee of USD 15.6 million. He will earn approximately 42 million euros per season.
Senegalese striker Sadio Mane joined Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr after spending just one season with German champions Bayern Munich. Both clubs agreed on a transfer fee of USD 30 million, with Mane signing a four-year deal. He will earn approximately 40 million euros per season.
Brazilian striker 'Bobby' Firmino joined Al-Ahli on a free transfer from Liverpool after serving the English club for a trophy-filled eight-year spell. He will earn approximately 20 million euros per season at the Saudi club.