The biggest losers of the Saudi Arabia football boom

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 15.9.2023.


With a reported €875,000,000 spent in a single transfer window to bring in the very best players in the world, Saudi Arabia is making an unprecedented boom in the ecosystem. The Middle Eastern country overspent all European nations bar England. Even though Spain, Italy, France, and Germany are looking in its back already, there are other who have suffered more due to these tectonic changes. The biggest losers of the Saudi Arabia football boom come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, with different reasons behind the worry.

MLS

Mesi MLS

Sure, the American football league did get the greatest of all time this summer in Leo Messi, yet they missed out on a lot of veteran talent that would be bound for the US if not for the Saudi money.

Sure, the MLS has started picking up on young, exciting players from South America on occasions. Yet the bulk of the players in the league are domestic talents, alongside Mexicans. While the cherry on top of many teams were the players proven in Europe. Those were the ticket-selling prizes.

Yet, now the destination to go for veterans is not the US, but Saudi Arabia.

As soon as the Major League Soccer withstood the Chinese front - which collapsed after few years of hastened building - a new, stronger and seemingly more ambitious one was created. Considering the leaders of Saudi Arabia are announcing a major five-year plan to have the country and the peninsula be the “new Europe” it seems that football is one of the pillars of the new age.

The MLS got Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, and Thierry Henry amongst others at the end of their careers. Now, Messi’s desire to see the sun out in a place where he wouldn’t be as popular and as bothered as in Europe gave the league the ultimate prize.

Yet few of the top players have the popularity that Messi had to worry about. They can withstand the Saudi fans for five times the money.

Still, the question of living standards and ways applies and could be the benefit for some players. Yet, the reality is that more of the African players, especially those with Islamic roots, would prefer the Arabian peninsula to the ultra-liberal environments of New York, Miami, Philadelphia, or Toronto.

Qatar

In the past years, if the players did go eastbound from Europe, it was mostly to Qatar. The biggest rival of Saudi Arabia for influence on the broader peninsula.

Diallo

Toby Alderweireld, Abdou Diallo, James Rodriguez, and Mehdi Benatia are some of the names that went to Qatar. Yet only Diallo arrived in the summer of 2023, missing the landing zone in a way. All the rest of the names on the list of most expensive Qatari transfers ahead of the 2023/2024 season are far less known. While Diallo arrived mostly because he was a player for the Qatar-backed Paris Saint-Germain.

Qatar invested tremendous money to become notable on the football map of the world. With infrastructure, PSG, and the 2022 World Cup. Yet in a one-fell-swoop, Saudis are overshining them. With money to spare seemingly.

Making their rivals one of the biggest losers of their boom was an additional, accidental bonus for the Saudis.

The Rest of Asia

Europeans might forget, but the Asian clubs meet each other in the continent's version of the Champions League. Now, with the oil turning into money turning into personalized cleats, the ecosystem will be introduced to apex predators. An event far stronger than the boosts Chelsea, Manchester City, and Newcastle United got in England over time.

While the reality is that the Saudi clubs already did pretty well in the AFC Champions League. With Al-Hilal reached the finals three times in the last four iterations of the competition, winning twice.

Overall, Saudi clubs have won the competition six times and were the runner-ups on 10 ocassions. Enough for the third spot on the most populous continent. Yet Japan (8) and South Korea (12) can't stand idle and watch the expansion as soon they'll be engulfed by the sand and money tide coming from Riyadh.

Of course, in tournament-styled competitions it’s impossible to guarantee anything, yet the odds will be heavily stacked in the favour of the new rich kids on the block. Making all the other aspiring Asian countries one of the biggest losers of the Saudi Arabia football boom.

Serbia

While we didn’t include, Spain, France, Germany, and (especially) Italy even though they received a massive competitor on the transfer market. We did include a different European country whose clubs cannot compete with the big spenders.

Yet it’s on the national level that Serbia is one of the biggest losers of the Saudi Arabia football boom.

Aleksandar Mitrovic

Simply, two of the three best players Serbia has joined the Saudi Super League. Aleksandar Mitrovic joined Al-Hilal for €52,600,00 from Fulham! While Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joined the same side but with €40,000,000 going to Lazio. Only Dusan Vlahovic remains in the much more competitive Europe, although he too is playing club games for a manager not getting the most out of him.

While other countries have "lost" players to the Saudi Arabia transfer mania, Serbia doesn't have the same luxury of misplacing on their key players.

Mitrovic is the country's leading scorer with an amazing record of 55 goals in 83 matches! While for Sergej, the whole of Serbia was wondering how he hasn't found a way to a world class club already. In a similar way they were in the loop about Dusan Tadic in the past, before he schooled Real Madrid with Ajax and showed the world his abilities.

In the era where untested Ligue 1 talents get €80,000,000 transfers to England after a mere single season, the man who played 341 games for Lazio was left skipped over by transfer sagas. Let alone transfers. Seeing how the versatile, physical, and technically gifted Sergej bagged 69 goals for the Serie A side, with 59 assists, it was truly bewildering. Until he signed for Al-Hilal.

To make the decisions of Mitro and Sergej even worse for Serbian fans, both of them are just entering their primes. Sergej turned 28, and Mitar 29 in 2023.

Now, their best years, the ones in which they were supposed to truly carry the national team, will be spent in a league where standards cannot reach that of Italian and English football championships. Not that quick. Even if you’re teammate is Neymar. Or especially then.

The erosion of their footballing capabilities might not come overnight, yet it is inevitable.

The Fans

Before we get accused of Eurocentrism, as Europe has taken the best South American players for decades, the reality is that the games on the Old Continent provide for atmospheric enjoyment that cannot be matched in Arabia so quickly. Not to mention the narrative storylines that have been told across Europe for years and continue to shape the landscape today for all the matches.

Will that even be possible for Saudis? What will happen to player commitment in Europe when they calculate the money they are leaving on the table by not calling their agent for a one-way trip to the Middle East? It certainly doesn’t look like the best option for the fans neither. Unless you’re from Saudi Arabia.




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