Gary Neville may have asked the Premier League to halt player transfers to Saudi Arabia for “integrity” reasons, but so far in a busy week of deals there is no sign of it stopping.
Friday saw the 26-year-old captain of Wolves Ruben Neves joined Al-Hilal for £47m, a record for a Molineux club.
And Chelsea’s goalkeeper Edward Mendy is the latest big European name to be heavily linked with a deal to join the Saudi Pro League.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante – The Best Of N’Golo Kante have already signed up – marquee names but nearing the end of their careers – and there is speculation that Lionel Messi will too, before he moves to the US.
But a growing number of players in their prime are also attracting interest, including two other Chelsea players in Kalidou Koulibaly and Hakim Ziyech, plus Arsenal’s Thomas Partey.
This underlines the league’s ambition to become one of the top five in the world.
Neville, however, is among those who question what all the potential activity means.
In June, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which owns Newcastle United, confirmed that they had taken over four of the country’s top clubs, including Al-Nassr, who signed Ronaldo in December.
There is uncertainty over whether the PIF has a stake in Chelsea’s ultimate owners, the private equity firm Clearlake Capital, although sources at the club have rejected suggestions of any direct involvement.
“The Premier League needs to put an immediate embargo on transfers to Saudi Arabia to ensure the integrity of the game is not damaged,” Neville told BBC Sport earlier this week.
“Property checks should be done on the transactions.
“If it comes through that process, obviously the transfers can open again. But I believe, at this time, the transfers should be stopped until you look at the ownership structure of Chelsea and if there are profitable transfer deals that are not right.”
A question of money – and Financial Fair Play
Neville’s comments come as Saudi Arabia’s spending on football increases, and as some English clubs face a challenge to balance their books.
Both Chelsea and Wolves face tough decisions about recruitment this summer as they try to stay within the Premier League’s three-year limit on losses of £105m under Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. rule.
Chelsea spent more than £400m on transfers last season, while Wolves posted a £46.1m loss last year and boss. Julen Lopetegui said the club needs to “solve” the FFP issues to compete in the top flight.
Wolves think Neves will join Barcelona this summer. However, the £47m fee agreed by Al-Hilal for the Portugal midfielder was much higher than expected.
Chelsea sources are adamant that Saudi Arabia’s PIF has “zero interest, financial or otherwise” in the club. The PIF has never denied having ties to Clearlake but it has been emphasized that the US private equity vehicle has 400 different investors on six continents and it is believed that no shareholder is allowed to own more than 5% of the organization.
Multi-club ownership is not banned by European governing body UEFA, which has so far declined to comment. The Premier League has a fair value assessment system to try to ensure that deals, both commercial and transfer, are done at market value. FIFA’s transfer matching system is designed to do something similar.
The goal, ultimately, is to make sure the rules are followed. Not an easy task, because the markets are changing, and the value of a player can change.
Can the Saudi Pro League make a big impact in that market?
What is the pedigree of the league?
Saudi Arabia has always had a great interest in football – and a competitive league to go with it.
The national team has qualified for six of the last eight World Cups. They have won three Asian Cups – only Japan has more.
At last year’s Qatar World Cup, all 26 members of the squad played for domestic clubs. No club has won the AFC Champions League more times than Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal’s four wins.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has become a more visible presence on the sporting scene, hosting Formula 1 races and high-profile world title boxing bouts as well. setting up LIV Golf.
the controversial purchase of Newcastle is further evidence of a growing interest in the use of sport in the project Saudi Arabia to a wider audience. A joint 2030 World Cup bid by Egypt and Greece is also planned.
“Saudi Arabia sees itself as being at the center of a new world order and investing in sport will help contribute to the national position,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy. at the Skema Business School in Paris, cited recently.
Developing the league in Saudi Arabia is part of that plan – with the help of high-profile names.
Former Leeds and Wolves forward Helder Costa, former Argentina international Ever Banega and former Watford and Manchester United striker Odion Ighalo all featured last season, when Al-Ittihad, coached by former Wolves and Tottenham boss Nuno Espirito Santo, finished as champion.
Is this another Chinese Super League?
When a league becomes a major player in the world transfer market, questions about its financial sustainability follow.
The Chinese Super League has, in a short period of time, attracted a lot of interest and paid huge sums to attract high-profile players, such as former Manchester United and City forward Carlos Tevez. Such levels of spending did not last.
But the Saudi Pro League believes it is built on stronger foundations.
“The league is well established, dating back to the 1970s, and the clubs have a real fanbase that cares about football which makes it real and not artificial,” a senior league source told BBC Sport.
“When it happened in China, it wasn’t clear government money. It was about encouraging entrepreneurs to do things. Then that stopped.
“Here the funding is more secure and part of a long-term plan. The clubs are well established in local communities and football across the country is the number one sport.
“Even though the league has a fair number of foreign players, it’s the big stars that get you worldwide TV coverage. When Ronaldo came in, the league started being shown in every major market. It got immediate attention.
“The announcement that the top four clubs will be 75% owned by the PIF, instead of the state, makes them a proper business. It’s more private sector and development of clubs and companies and brands .
“Ronaldo’s transfer proves that it can happen. It’s one thing to say ‘we’re going to sign the best players in the world’ but for someone of Ronaldo’s status to actually come, live in Riyadh and play in every game, it’s a surprise to people and shows that we can make other people go.”
Is Europe worried about losing talent?
For European football, the climb to the Saudi Pro League presents a challenge.
Losing top players is not a new experience – China and Major League Soccer have tempted stars before. However, the departure of players in their prime, such as Neves, is a concern.
If he can pick up the kind of eye-watering salary, how will European clubs respond? Even in the top 20 in Deloitte’s rich list, Funds are not limited and financial regulations must be followed. If they try to compete for a long time, it will affect the clubs biggest expense – wages.
And what about the Champions League? If its prestige as a club competition begins to deteriorate due to the absence of the biggest names in world football, will clubs from outside Europe be offered?
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin doesn’t see it that way.
“This is basically a mistake for football in Saudi Arabia,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “They have to invest in academies, bring in their own coaches and develop their own players.
“The system of buying players who are nearing the end of their career is not the system that develops football. It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought in players who were at the end of their career.
“It’s not just about money. The players want to win the top competitions. And the top competition is in Europe.”