Cristiano Ronaldo generated worldwide headlines with his move to Al Nassr in December, and Lionel Messi could follow in his great rival's footsteps by moving to the Saudi Pro League (SPL) this summer. But while football's two biggest stars are raising Saudi Arabia's football profile, intentionally or otherwise, sources told ESPN that this summer will see a change in the type of players moving to the Middle East nation.
Saudi Arabia is hosting the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time in December, and the country is also planning to submit a bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2030 -- a combined tricontinental tournament with Egypt and Greece has been proposed. And in its domestic league, Ronaldo's move to Al Nassr following the mutual cancellation of his Manchester United contract helped transform the SPL from a largely unknown competition into one that struck broadcasting deals in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Germany, Austria and Switzerland within a month of his arrival.
Much of the focus has been on Ronaldo's performances for Al Nassr and the prospect of Messi joining Saudi's biggest and most successful team, Al Hilal, when his contract at Paris Saint-Germain expires at the end of this season. The attention surrounding the friendly between Al Nassr and PSG in Riyadh on Jan. 19, Ronaldo's first match after moving to Saudi Arabia, offered a taste of what it might be like if the two were reunited in the same league for the first time since 2018, when Ronaldo left Real Madrid to join Juventus and Messi remained in LaLiga with Barcelona.
But sources in Saudi Arabia have told ESPN of plans for up to 50 players from Europe's big five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and Portugal's top flight to move to the SPL this summer. The plan, backed by Saudi Arabia's ministry of sport, is for out-of-contract players in those leagues to be targeted by SPL clubs.
Messi is the most high-profile player whose contract is due to expire this summer, but others include Liverpool's Roberto Firmino, Manchester City's Ilkay Gundogan, Wolverhampton Wanderers winger Adama Traore and Everton duo Yerry Mina and Abdoulaye Doucoure. Karim Benzema is expected to extend his contract at Real Madrid, but he has still to sign a new deal at the Bernabeu. Sources in Saudi Arabia have told ESPN that the financial difficulties being experienced by clubs throughout Europe have created an opportunity for SPL teams to recruit high-quality players.
Each SPL team is allowed to have as many as eight non-Saudi players on its books, with seven eligible to be selected for the matchday squad. Right now in the 16-team league, no club has fewer than six foreign players and the majority have their full quota. However, sources have said that this summer will see a rapid uptick in quality with clubs riding the wave of publicity generated by Ronaldo to overhaul their squads.
One agent told ESPN that he has held talks with clubs in Saudi Arabia about international players from Spain, Morocco and Colombia, with clubs also keen to discuss clients who are high-profile coaches. But despite the huge salary being paid to Ronaldo and the figures being reported in relation to a deal for Messi, a source in Saudi Arabia told ESPN that those players are regarded as exceptions and other potential signings should not expect outlandish deals.
"This won't be like the Chinese league a few years ago," the source said. "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.
"But this isn't about trying to sign the top 50 players in the world. It is about raising the quality and profile of the league and making it the first-choice destination outside of the big leagues in Europe."
Garry Cook, the former Manchester City chief executive, was appointed as CEO of the SPL in January. The plans to fast-track the signing of top players by Saudi clubs this summer bear similarities to the so-called "accelerated recruitment strategy" he oversaw during his time at City in the wake of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan's takeover in 2008.
The focus on large-scale recruitment also has echoes of the controversial LIV Golf series, the Saudi-backed golf tour which has signed up many of the world's leading golfers to huge pay deals. But while LIV Golf is bankrolled by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), which also owns a majority stake in Newcastle United, sources have said that the significant difference between the SPL and LIV is that each club, while closely monitored by the Ministry of Sport, is self-funded and not tied to government investment.
Some clubs are wealthier and more attractive to potential signings than others. Al Hilal and Al Nassr, as the two main clubs in the capital city of Riyadh have the biggest resources, alongside Jeddah-based Al Ittihad, the SPL leaders who are managed by former Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur and Porto coach Nuno Espirito Santo.
Saudi Arabia's arrival with ambitions to be a major player in world football may be welcomed by many clubs in Europe as they look to reduce wage bills by offloading high earners in the coming transfer windows. But with Qatar and Abu Dhabi already well established as significant forces in football following their respective investment in PSG and Manchester City, as well as Qatar's hosting of the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabia's plans are another example of the shifting of the balance of power in the game.
Europe remains the driving force of football, but the financial strength and influence now seems to be rooted in the Middle East.