The world witnessed one of the biggest shocks in football history during the 2023 summer transfer window. In Europe, things were as usual, with leagues signing players from the left and right. But Saudi Arabia got everyone talking as it continues to attract some of football’s star players.
“Football is already a kind of lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. Before all this started bringing in the superstars, they were seeing 70-80,000 spectators every week in the stadiums. They want to take the next step in development.” Mohammed Hamdi, former director of Al Jazira FC, explained.
Cristiano Ronaldo paved the way for the Middle East by making a move to Al-Nassr shortly after the FIFA 2022 World Cup held in Qatar. After a well-documented controversy at Manchester United, the star was declared a free agent during the tournament. And he continued to play for his country and advanced in the qualifying rounds.
On December 30, 2022, he signed a preliminary contract that took effect on January 1. According to reports, Ronaldo’s salary is the highest in football history. His new club, Al-Nassr, instantly felt the benefits of having such a big star. Their profile as a football club skyrocketed overnight. They’ve gained more than 15 million Instagram followers in less than a week, as Ronaldo fans around the world crave to hear about his new club.
On the field, the transfer had mixed results. Scoring 14 goals in 16 matches is a great result, but his team was only able to finish second in the Pro League, behind Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal.
His arrival in the Middle East opened the floodgates for others to follow. Several top players have left Europe and headed to Saudi Arabia, including current Ballon ‘or Winner and Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema, who joined Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad.
Uri Levy, founder of Middle Eastern football news site Babagol, believes his arrival has tremendous cultural significance as well as his sporting taste.
“I think Karim Benzema is a good enough player to start any team in Europe this season, but he’s choosing Saudi Arabia. I also think that the fact that Benzema is a practicing Muslim could mean he becomes a more familiar face for the project. Obviously, you have to score goals and assists, but he will receive unconditional love.”
Also joining Benzema and Ronaldo in the region was the home of English Premier League talent. Former Chelsea players Edouard Mendy and N’Golo Kante joined Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad respectively. Wolverhampton Wanderers star Ruben Neves has joined the champions Al-Hilal, hoping his new team can defend the title next season.
It’s not just players moving to Saudi Arabia. Steven Gerrard has signed up as the new coach of Al-Ettifaq in Dammam. His signature is the first big name executive appointment in the region. The former Liverpool midfielder had some crucial experience in the English Premier League. He also won the Scottish Premier League with Celtic Rangers just two years ago. Gerrard is widely regarded as one of the most exciting young managers Ettifaq could seek to hire.
“It’s a win-win situation for both sides. Gerrard needs a fresh start and a place to put his fingerprints on his football. I don’t mean to say he will have endless resources to do that, but he will have very generous resources to choose his players and his methods.” Uri Levy continued.
Ettifaq is one of the smaller clubs in the Saudi Pro League. Gerrard may have trouble attracting big names. Spending less money than some big clubs, their goal this season will be to finish next season in the top six. This was considered a success for Steve Gerrard.
Saudi Arabia is a premier hotspot for top footballers. It’s an exciting time to follow football in the Middle East. Rumor has it that many more high-profile players could make the move when the next transfer window opens in January.