MANCHESTER, England—After an outlay of $1 billion, Saudi Arabia’s transfer window shut on Thursday with the oil-rich kingdom having announced itself as a new powerhouse in global soccer.
Leading target Mohamed Salah may not have joined Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema by moving to the lucrative Saudi Pro League, but it seems inevitable more stars will eventually be lured away from Europe’s biggest clubs.
Liverpool last week reportedly rejected a bid worth 150 million pounds ($188 million) from Al-Ittihad for Salah and despite speculation a renewed offer would come before Thursday’s deadline, no deal was struck for the Egypt international.
There is, however, little suggestion Saudi Arabia’s spectacular spending will end there as the country has sought to buy its way into international sports, investing in recent years in golf, boxing, Formula One racing and tennis, as well as soccer.
While that has led to accusations of “sportswashing” in a bid to improve the country’s image in the face of its poor human rights record, Saudi Arabia has continued to spend lavishly as it seeks to raise the profile of its soccer league.
Based on reported fees, Saudi clubs paid just over $1 billion on players, which would place it behind only the English Premier League in terms of global spending during the window.
Then there are the exorbitant salaries said to be on offer, with Ronaldo’s deal reportedly worth up to $200 million a year.
Despite anticipation that Salah could be the latest superstar signing, the Saudi window ended relatively quietly. Demarai Gray joined Al-Ettifaq from Everton and Luiz Felipe completed a move from Real Betis to Al-Ittihad.
There was also speculation that Manchester United winger Jadon Sancho could join the exodus, but a move did not materialize.
The transfer business of Saudi’s leading clubs has been spectacular enough, even without a deadline day deal for Salah.
Ronaldo’s decision to join Al-Nassr in December has paved the way for more of the world’s leading players to head to the country.
Champions League winners N’Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Aymeric Laporte have joined Benzema and Neymar as star recruits to a league that was previously little known outside of the region.
Failed attempts were made for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe.
The push is backed by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, which took up a majority ownership stake in four of its top clubs, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al Hilal.
The moves into sport are cast as part of efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to leverage the kingdom’s oil wealth to provide new jobs and opportunities for the country’s youth.
While critics have dismissed it as “sportswashing,” Yannick Carrasco, who joined Al Shabab from Atlético Madrid earlier this week, defended Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
“I see how women live there, and how people go about their lives,” he said during a news conference with Belgium’s national team. “Honestly, it is a beautiful country. It is hard to judge if you only listen to what people say about it. You have to experience it yourself.”
UN human rights experts, however, criticized Saudi Arabia in July for lengthy prison sentences given to two women who tweeted criticism of the kingdom’s policies.
As well its drive to improve its domestic league, Saudi Arabia also has a foot in the Premier League after PIF bought Newcastle United in 2021, with its financial backing enabling the club to qualify for this season’s Champions League.
There is also speculation Saudi Arabia will bid to host the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup.
Neymar proved to be the biggest signing of the window after joining Al Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain.
Al Hilal is Saudi’s most successful team, having won the league championship a record 18 times and the Asian Champions League four times. It had already missed out on Messi, who joined MLS club Inter Miami, and bid a record $332 million for Mbappe.
As well as Neymar, Al Hilal signed Yassine Bounou, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ruben Neves and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr signed Mane, Otavio, Marcelo Brozovic, Laporte and Alex Telles.
Reigning Saudi champion Al-Ittihad brought in Benzema, Kante and Fabinho before the deadline day signing of Felipe.
Al-Ahli’s signings included Firmino, Mahrez, Allan Saint-Maximin, Edouard Mendy, Franck Kessie and Gabri Veiga.
Al-Ettifaq hired former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard as coach and signed ex-Liverpool captain Henderson before landing Gray before the window closed.
Image credits: AP