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Players want to GET OUT of Saudi Arabia

6 minute read Published January 25, 2024

It came as a shock when Ronaldo went to Saudi Arabia but the transfer makes more sense in hindsight. Ronaldo paved the way for what would turn out to be an intense summer of transfers to the Saudi Pro League. Mané, Benzema, Neves and many, many more went on crazy contracts and the sports washing project was 

Since then there have been some highlights shown here and there but the Saudi League really hasn’t had any impact yet and now, rather than sporting news, comes news of discontent from the players with the level of football, of support and the standard of living in the middle eastern monarchy.

Players that want to move

Last week, Jordan Henderson decided to back his bags and go back to Europe, signing for Ajax. He originally signed a three year deal with Al Ettifaq and was called a hypocrite by fans for moving to a socially conservative country, having previously been nominated as a “Football Ally” at the English LGBT+ awards. Turns out that life in a country that goes against one's beliefs isn’t that great, neither he or his family could settle in which is why they decided to move.

But it doesn’t stop with Henderson. While Benzema hasn’t said outright that he wants to leave, he’s been letting the world know through leaks and behaviour. The French striker has been missing club events and Al Ittihad are reportedly fed up with him. The top Premier League teams are said to be interested in a transfer and it seems like Benzema is very keen to leave Saudi Arabia.

Neymar has barely played this season after tearing his ACL. Obviously, this doesn’t indicate that he wants to leave but rather that his season hasn’t exactly gone to plan either. 

One player that left at the prime of his career is 28 year old Sergei Milinkovic-Savic, who joined Al Hilal before this season after spending eight years at Lazio. Despite his move to Saudi Arabia meant a salary increase from about €5 million per year to €25 million, he’s reported to be angling for a move back to Europe, preferably back to Lazio.

Aymeric Laporte gave an interview with Spanish paper AS last week where he both admitted to having difficulties adjusting to playing in Saudi Arabia as well as doing it in big part due to the money it brought in. Laporte also claimed that, because of the standards of living, a lot of the players that came from Europe are seriously considering their future. 

“In terms of quality of life, I expected something different because in the end here you spend three hours a day in the car.”

Level of football

Of course, this summer saw some superstars join Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia. It’s easy to forget, since the coverage has been close to zero since then but some very good players joined Saudi Arabian teams and not only “washed up” players looking for their last payday. Here’s just a selection of the players that moved this summer:

Player Team Age
Neves Al Hilal 26
Saint Maximin Al Ahli 26
Neves Al Hilal 26
Kessie Al Ahli 26
Milinkovic-Savic Al Hilal 28
Laporte Al Nassr 29
Fabinho Al Ittihad 29
Brozovic Al Nassr 30
Neymar Al Hilal 31
Mane Al Nassr 31
Firmino Al Ahli 31
Mahrez Al Ahli 32
Kante Al Ittihad 32
Koulibaly Al Hilal 32
Wijnaldum Al Ettifaq 32
Henderson Al Ettifaq 33
Benzema Al Ittihad 34

However, the teams these players moved to are still mostly made up of local talent that, while good, are miles away from the standards of La Liga, Premier League or Serie A, even if Cristiano Ronaldo claims “the league is better than Ligue 1”, that’s very unlikely.

The climate is also a factor for football, as Saudi Arabia is a very hot and dry country. Many games are played in 35 degree heat and basically zero humidity. It’s a very uncomfortable climate to try to perform at your best as an athlete. 

Football Culture in Saudi Arabia

It also turns out that you can’t just create a football culture by bringing in some of the biggest stars. Despite lining up with players like Ronaldo, Mane and Benzema, teams have struggled to get people to come to the games, with some of them played in front of less than 1000. The average attendance in the league is 8345.

League Average attendance
La Segunda 9925
League 1 9544
Bundesliga 3 9152
Serie B 8698
Saudi Pro League 8345

Even in the former most popular retirement league, the MLS, in a country where football is only the fifth most popular sport, the crowds at games are multiples higher.

The standard of living

Most of the players that have made the moves bring a family and for the wives and girlfriends of these players, it’s a very different type of environment. It was just a couple of years ago that women were allowed to drive, there are clear rules for different types of work that women can’t do, like garbage collection. Not that Jordan Henderson's wife would take that job, but, you know, just to show the difference.

Additionally, it’s not uncommon that players sometimes have issues adapting to a completely new culture, as we’ve seen and heard from South American players in Europe before. Players from Europe may be more used to a walkable city rather than commuting by car for three hours a day, and a culture where you’ll meet up with friends over a glass of wine or a pint, whereas the social culture in Saudi Arabia is very different with no alcohol and informal socialisation mainly within families.

Final Thoughts

It does seem like that big money move just before retirement or even just to maximise your salary in the prime of your career hasn’t worked out for more than a few of the players that opted to move to Saudi Arabia this summer.

The level of football, the support from the fans and the standards of living are far below what these players are used to and it’s bad enough that they’re considering leaving that payday behind.

Then again, you sometimes see what you wanna see and I think a lot of us want to see the Saudi Pro League and the Saudi Arabian sportswashing project fail.

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