Eastern Promise: What Sort Of Player Is The Saudi Pro League Looking For?

Saudi Arabia has become the centre of the transfer universe
07:00, 24 Jul 2023

The Saudi Pro League has been the story of the summer transfer window. Since signing Cristiano Ronaldo for Al-Nassr last season, the league has gone all-out to improve its profile and standards. Every day seems to bring news of another superstar signing being sought by a Saudi club.

But what makes a Saudi Pro League transfer target? Is there a pattern to the sort of players being tapped to play in the gulf state? The Sportsman has taken a deeper look into the sort of players being hoovered up by football’s upstart superpower to answer that very question.


Like its spiritual predecessors, Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League, name value is front and centre of the SPL operation. Ronaldo started the ball rolling on that score, being the most-followed footballer worldwide on social media. His signing was pivotal in convincing others to chance their arm in the state. Like David Beckham signing for LA Galaxy, the SPL needed one of the game’s superstars to prove its viability as a destination.

When Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema became the second major name to join, signing for Al-Ittihad, the floodgates were truly open. Already a pattern was emerging, with two global superstars in their mid-to-late thirties signing huge deals. The SPL project was so far echoing the American and Chinese experiments of the past. Big names were signing but were doing so with their best football firmly behind them.

This made Ruben Neves’ transfer from Wolverhampton Wanderers to all the more surprising. Nobody is doubting the qualities Ronaldo and Benzema still possess, but it is fair to say the end of their respective careers are at least in sight. Neves is 26 years old and a player linked with everyone from Barcelona to Manchester United. Suddenly it felt like the paradigm had shifted. The SPL wasn’t just coming for veteran talent, they were also eyeing sought-after players in their prime.


Sergej Milinkovic-Savic is another who fits the bill, signing for Al-Hilal from Lazio. The 28-year-old is a fixture of the transfer rumour mill, a player with no shortage of possible suitors. But the pull of the Saudi Pro League is strong. The financial incentives on offer are a massive part of it, but not the only part. With so many high-quality players joining, the quality of football is improving rapidly. 

While La Liga and Serie A have had some of their players poached, the Premier League is the primary source of the Saudi influx. Chelsea have sold a number of their bloated squad to teams in the league, including Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly, and N’golo Kante. Manchester City have flogged them Riyad Mahrez. Liverpool have sold Jordan Henderson while Roberto Firmino chose the SPL as his destination after leaving at the end of his contract.

The name value of the global Premier League brand makes these players an attractive proposition. The influence of England’s top division stretches far and wide and signing players from the country’s top teams is bound to draw eyeballs. But beyond the fact Saudi clubs are buying from English, there is also a pattern emerging in the profile of some of their signings.

There is clearly a keenness to highlight Muslim talent in the league. It is a sound strategy, with Islam being the primary religion of Saudi Arabia. Kante, Mahrez and Benzema are among the high-profile Islamic players who have joined the league. Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane is another big-name star in talks over an SPL move. Highlighting aspirational athletes to a primarily-Muslim fanbases seems like a genuine goal of the league.

So what is a Saudi Pro League signing. They are usually, if not always, over 30 years of age. The typical incoming player will be a big name star, often from one of the Premier League’s elite clubs. The players being sought will also often be Muslim, in keeping with the country’s religious beliefs. Most players being scouted fit one or more of these categories as the SPL embarks on its rapid expansion. 

It will be interesting to see if this is always the case. The Chinese Super League made a conscious pivot towards domestic talent after a few years chasing the superstar names. The MLS still has enough pulling power to sign Lionel Messi. But the days of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the league at the same time seem far off now. Will the SPL follow suit and eventually scale back the name-first scouting practices? We likely won’t find out for a while. The idea at the moment is still very firmly to buy and buy big.

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