Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs splashed out almost $ one billion in the transfer window in a bid to boost the domestic competition by attracting some of the world’s leading players, according to analysis from Deloitte published on Friday.
The outlay of $957 million in the Saudi window, which closed on Sept. 7, exceeded the spending of four of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues with only England’s Premier League clubs splurging more on transfers than those in the Middle Eastern nation.
The clubs they surpassed in spending power include Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A and Ligue 1.
“This marks the first time since 2016 that another international league has outspent any of Europe’s ‘big ffour’ during a football transfer window…,” said Izzy Wray of Deloitte’s Sports Business Group.
“European football continues to be the benchmark for the game globally, and the Saudi investment in the game will divert its focus towards the infrastructure, to elevate the level of Asian football.”
In an interview with Sky Sports published on Friday, SPL director of football Michael Emenalo, who spent seven years at Chelsea, said he hoped the league had made “positive headlines”.
“We look back with great satisfaction that we have put the league in a better place than it was previously,” he said.
“We have been able to attract and embed some of the best players in the world. We have got now, as part of the league, very good players.”
Earlier this year, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) announced a Sports Clubs Investment and Privatisation Project involving league champions Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, with a host of top players moving to the league.
The biggest Saudi transfer came from the country’s most successful club, Al-Hilal, who spent €90 million to bring in forward Neymar from Paris St Germain.
In addition to the Brazil star, Al-Hilal also spent big money on Aleksandar Mitrovic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ruben Neves.
SPL champions Al-Ittihad signed Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Fabinho, while Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr brought in Otavio, Sadio Mane and Aymeric Laporte among others.
Al-Ahli, who returned to the Pro League following a season in the second division, also made a string of signings including Gabri Veiga, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy and Alain Saint-Maximin.
“The implementation of the Kingdom’s privatisation program is likely to draw a wave of interest around the SPL, potentially fuelling the current spending pattern for the windows to come,” Wray said.
For all its expenditure, the SPL still missed out on some of its biggest targets.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah was the subject of interest from Al-Ittihad, who reportedly had an offer of 150 million pounds ($187.10 million) turned down, while ambitious bids from Al-Hilal for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe failed.
Saudi Arabia has made massive investments in soccer, Formula One, boxing, tennis and golf in recent years.
Critics accuse the country of using PIF to engage in “sportswashing” in the face of heavy criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
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“I would say that I don’t see historically what sportswashing has to do with it,” Emenalo said.
“… I’ve not seen a clear indication that this is anything but wanting to have one of the best leagues in the world to provide quality entertainment and leadership examples to the people of Saudi Arabia.”