The Saudi Arabian football league has “changed the market” and is here “to stay”, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has said.
Speaking in South Korea on the treble winners’ pre-season tour, Guardiola said that only a few months ago it was difficult to imagine top-class players choosing to move to the desert kingdom.
Now, however, “extraordinary players” are agreeing transfers to the Middle East, something that will happen “more and more”, he added.
Former City and Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez – described by Guardiola as an “incredible technique player” with “incredible skills” – is moving to Saudi club Al-Ahli.
Despite being paid handsomely in the European leagues, the money on offer to star players in Saudi Arabia is on a different scale.
Former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who is off to play for Al-Ettifaq FC, will reportedly be earning three times the £200,000 a week he got with the Reds.
“I think the Saudi league has changed the market,” Guardiola said.
“Many things happened unexpectedly. Just a few months ago, a year ago, when Cristiano (Ronaldo) was the only one to go, then no one could imagine the amount of top, top players, quality, extraordinary players (who are) going to play in the Saudi league.
“I think in the close future it’s going to happen more and more.”
Guardiola thinks the Saudi clubs plan to continue their spending.
“It’s not about a threat,” he said. “It is a reality. They want to create a strong league and they are the league who can do it.”
Premier League clubs have been able to spend large amounts because broadcast rights and sponsorships have been sold for higher prices than other leagues managed to secure, the City manager said.
It is unclear how long the Saudi Pro league will be able to “sustain” its current outlay, he observed, but added: “The feeling is that right now they have arrived to stay.”
Twelve stars now signed to Saudi Arabian teams
Cristiano Ronaldo – Al-Nassr. After his acrimonious departure from Manchester United, five-time Ballon D’Or winner Ronaldo headed to Saudi Arabia.
Karim Benzema – Al-Ittihad. Reigning Ballon D’Or winner Benzema left Real Madrid after his contract expired, having won five Champions League titles during his time there.
Jordan Henderson – Al-Ettifaq. The former Liverpool captain has signed a three-year deal, leaving Anfield after 12 years to link back up with former team-mate Steven Gerrard, who is now the Saudi club’s manager.
Riyad Mahrez – Al-Ahli. Mahrez is the latest high-profile Saudi recruit after Manchester City agreed a deal worth up to £30m for the Algeria winger, who had two years remaining on his contract.
N’Golo Kante – Al-Ittihad. Kante headed for the Gulf on a free transfer as he opted to leave Chelsea at the end of his deal.
Kalidou Koulibaly – Al Hilal. After a single season at Stamford Bridge, Senegal centre-back Koulibaly left Chelsea for a fee in the region of £20m.
Ruben Neves – Al-Hilal. Portugal international Neves helped Wolves to win promotion from the Championship before enjoying five Premier League campaigns at Molineux, establishing himself as one of the best-regarded midfielders in the division.
Edouard Mendy – Al-Ahli. Mendy lost his place as first-choice goalkeeper at Chelsea after arriving at the club in 2020. He made just 10 Premier League appearances last season.
Marcelo Brozovic – Al-Nassr. Brozovic left Inter Milan after captaining the Serie A side in their Champions League final loss to Manchester City. The 30-year-old Croatia midfielder heads to Saudi Arabia after eight seasons and five major trophies in Italy.
Roberto Firmino – Al-Ahli. The highest-scoring Brazilian in Premier League history, Firmino was a firm favourite among Liverpool supporters after eight years at Anfield.
Jota – Al-Ittihad. After scoring 15 goals to help Celtic win a domestic treble, former Portugal youth international Jota made a £25m move at the start of July.
Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – Al-Hilal. Lazio’s player of the season in 2020-21 and 2021-22, Milinkovic-Savic will be turning out in the Saudi Pro League after a reported £34.3m transfer.
A move to Saudi Arabia is not necessarily trouble-free, however. Henderson’s transfer has been condemned by Liverpool’s LGBT+ fans, who point to the Middle Eastern country’s dubious record on human rights.
Henderson’s new club – Al-Ettifaq FC – turned part of a colour photograph black and white – ensuring a rainbow armband he was wearing cannot be seen.
LGBT+ fans’ group Kop Outs said Henderson had been “tarnished”.
His manager at Al-Ettifaq will be another Liverpool legend – Steven Gerrard.
Other high-profile players to accept a move to Saudi Arabia include Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante.