— Ruben Neves (@rubendsneves_) June 23, 2023
Ruben Neves is perhaps the most curious case of them all. The 26-year old Portuguese captains Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers. For a long time, the midfielder was touted for a starting berth at one of Europe’s top clubs. Neves had even agreed personal terms with Barcelona but the deal fell through due to Barcelona’s precarious financial situation. Now he has joined Al Hilal for a fee of €55 million.
With Neves, it seems like money did the talking. For a player in his prime, leaving Europe for a league that plays at a lower footballing level seems unthinkable. And yet Neves has done it, and possibly set a precedent for more such moves to follow.
Then there is a second set of players, those in their early 30s with plenty of options available in Europe. Just a season ago, Kalidou Koulibaily was one of Europe’s most sought-after center backs. Having starred at Napoli for 8 seasons, Chelsea signed the Senegalese for €38 million last summer. But after one poor season in London, it looks like Koulibaly has ditched the high pressure and high demands of European football for an easier project in Saudi Arabia. Al Hilal spent just €23 million to sign the player – with Chelsea incurring a loss of €15 million on an investment that came with big expectations.
“I will always be a wolf. I will see you in the South Bank one day.” pic.twitter.com/IcYoEPda9T
— Wolves (@Wolves) June 23, 2023
30-year-old Hakim Ziyech is also set for a move to Saudi Arabia – only 6 months after starring in Morocco’s run to 4th place at the FIFA World Cup. After falling out of favor at Chelsea, a move to Italy seemed to be on the cards, but Al Nassr came calling and Ziyech took up their highly lucrative offer. 32-year old Eduard Mendy, who was instrumental in Chelsea’s 2021 Champions League victory, has since slumped behind Kepa Arrizabalaga as first-choice in-between the sticks. AS Monaco were reportedly interested in bringing Mendy back to France, but once again it seems like money prevailed as Al Ahli came calling.
And then there is N’Golo Kante – football’s universally beloved star. Despite a season beset by injury, Kante and Chelsea were in talks for a contract extension. When fit, Kante remains one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders, even at the age of 32. He has now joined Benzema at Al Ittihad, on a contract worth €25 million a year.
A similar pattern is present among this group of players. They were all enduring troubled times at their clubs, but their talent and ability was unquestionably still present. A simple change of scenery would’ve been enough to rediscover form and continue competing at the highest level, but it seems like a combination of lower-stakes and higher-pays in Saudi Arabia appealed most to these players.
For 35-year old Karim Benzema, the reasons for moving to Al Hilal may be a lot clearer. Long having stepped down from national team obligations, and already having won everything there is to win with Real Madrid, there wasn’t much more for Benzema to play for in Europe. Despite another good season at Real Madrid, Benzema clearly isn’t the same player he was, with injury and the requirement of playing multiple competitions every season taking a toll on his body. For him, the Saudi Pro League represents a sail on calm waters to end his illustrious football career.
Despite a string of players leaving for Arabia, there are a couple who stamped their commitment to continue playing at the top level of the sport, at least for the time being. Ilkay Gundogan (32) and Luka Modric (37), both turned down extremely high paying deals for a free transfer to Barcelona and a contract extension at Real Madrid respectively.
Unlike what the Chinese Super League or MLS had tried in the past, the Saudi Pro League seems to be positioning itself as more than just a retirement home, and instead a viable destination for European players still far off from their sunset years. Right now money seems to be the driving force behind new acquisitions, but as the league’s talent pool grows, it may grow to be more than just that.