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What next for Saudi Arabia’s football vision as big ambitions meet player discontent?

When Manchester United’s football director John Murtough arrived in Saudi Arabia at the end of last year, he had only one thing on his mind.

United were keen to offload some of the big earners in their squad – the likes of Casemiro, Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Anthony Martial – and Murtough, who was joined by Matt Hargreaves, their lead transfer negotiator, was eager to forge connections in the belief that Saudi clubs would be willing buyers.

Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly had, after all, enjoyed a fruitful trip there last summer ahead of selling Edouard Mendy, Kalidou Koulibaly and N’Golo Kante to Saudi Pro League clubs.

As it turned out, there were no takers – and United were not alone.

Across Europe, clubs hoping their Saudi counterparts would ease their financial fair play concerns and emulate their spending last summer, when Neymar, Karim Benzema and Ruben Neves were signed as part of a £750million splurge, were disappointed. There were no standout signings, beyond a 35-year-old Ivan Rakitic joining Al Shabab.

If summer 2023 was about landing high-profile players, lured by the riches on offer, then January 2024 was about trying to keep hold of them.

It quickly became clear that England’s Jordan Henderson, Al Ettifaq’s marquee signing in July, wanted out, which paved the way for him to join Dutch club Ajax. Ian Foster, Steven Gerrard’s assistant manager at Al Ettifaq, left to take charge of the Championship side Plymouth Argyle.

Benzema, one of the world’s best strikers during his time at Real Madrid, missed Al Ittihad’s final training session before the winter break and went on holiday without permission. He, too, was unhappy but has ended up staying.

West Ham United were interested in signing former Celtic forward Jota from Al Ittihad, but a move failed to materialise due to tax issues. The 24-year-old has not played in the Saudi Pro League since early September because of the restriction on overseas players and was open to the idea of moving.

West Ham were interested in signing Jota from Al Ittihad (Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

At one point, it looked like even Roberto Mancini, the Saudi Arabia men’s national team manager, was checking out. The 59-year-old Italian, who quit the same position with his homeland in August for the riches on offer in the Gulf — he reportedly earns £21million a year — headed down the tunnel during the last-16 penalty shootout against South Korea that saw them eliminated from the Asian Cup on Tuesday.

Mancini, however, quickly apologised and posted on X, formerly Twitter, that with the fans’ “support and trust” they can “continue to build the future of Saudi football”. This episode added to the oddness that surrounded Saudi Arabia’s January.

Did everyone really want out? Where has the money gone? Are the Saudi national team in a spot of bother? And what about their vision to be football’s new powerhouse?

Losing Henderson from the Saudi Pro League (SPL) is one thing, but allowing Benzema to leave so soon after his summer arrival would have been catastrophic to the country’s desire to be regarded as one of the best leagues in the world, even if the Frenchman is now past his peak at 36.

While there have been cracks in his relationship with Saudi champions Al Ittihad for some time, they could no longer be papered over after Benzema went on holiday to Reunion Island, officially part of France but off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, without permission.

The player then visited neighbouring Mauritius, where he spent most of his time, and was a week late to Al Ittihad’s winter-break training camp in their home city of Jeddah last month, blaming the delay on a cyclone that prevented his departure. While this was going on, several of Benzema’s advisers were in Dubai, meeting with club officials to find a solution.

Agents had been working on his exit for weeks, but Lyon, the French club he played for before joining Real Madrid in 2009, were the only seemingly viable option. In the end, it proved too expensive and too complicated to find an agreement.

An early exit was always going to be complicated by his financial expectations, coupled with the fact his current salary would likely be impossible for any club outside Saudi Arabia to match. There was the possibility of Benzema going to another SPL club, yet that also failed to materialise, meaning he will now remain in Jeddah until the summer at least.

Benzema only joined Al Ittihad last summer (Khalid Alhaj/MB Media/Getty Images)

Despite scoring 12 goals in 20 appearances in all competitions and being made captain, Benzema has faced criticism from fans over poor performances and has subsequently deleted his Instagram profile. Benzema was punished by coach Marcelo Gallardo for not showing up on time, and Gallardo and club officials were also annoyed about how information emerged about the forward being stuck in Mauritius instead of heading back to training.

Even still, there is a belief among those at Al Ittihad that a more stable future lies ahead, with Ramon Planes, a former sporting director at Barcelona, and Domingo Suarez, the club’s chief executive, laying the foundations behind the scenes for an improved structure.

While there were no significant moves in January, the club held advanced talks to sign Angel Correa from Atletico Madrid. The 28-year-old Argentina forward wanted to leave as he was unhappy with coach Diego Simeone and wanted to play under countryman Gallardo but the negotiations did not progress and Correa has stayed in the Spanish capital.

There is ambition in Saudi to bring more players in but across the league there have been complaints about standards in the game’s infrastructure there, be it the training grounds or the support staff.

“They are realising that they have to start investing in facilities, physios and nutritionists to professionalise everything,” an agent, like others in this article speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships, of a player currently in the Saudi Pro League said.

“The day-to-day care and attention to detail of the high-level athletes in Europe is much higher and more serious than in Saudi Arabia,” another agent of a player in Saudi said. “They are more laidback and relaxed, and that has led to significant discontent in the leading European players.”

Talking generally, another well-placed source said the issues players are having extend off the pitch.

“On one hand, there is a real drop in football standard-wise, and on the other hand the lifestyle being really difficult,” they said. “Yes, you have nice houses, nice cars, everything you need, but there is no real social life, and it’s a very repetitive environment.

“That has been really tough on families in particular. We can’t underestimate the culture shock. The Middle Eastern way of life is just so different and not easy to adapt to.”

The Saudi government, as part of the Vision 2030 project, is developing The Red Sea, a resort north of Jeddah which they believe will help them overtake Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as the Middle East’s premier tourist destination. This may go some way to appeasing lifestyle issues harboured by players.

Aymeric Laporte, the Spain and former Manchester City defender who is now a team-mate of Cristiano Ronaldo at Al Nassr in capital city Riyadh, did not hold back in his criticisms when speaking at an awards event in Dubai last month.

Laporte, who has spoken of his discontent, confronts Henderson, before the latter’s return to Europe (MB Media/Getty Images)

“It is a big change compared to Europe, but in the end it is all about adaptation,” Laporte said. “They have not made it easy for us. In fact, there are many players that are discontented. Maybe they are not used to this and have to adapt to a little more seriousness.”

Laporte admitted the financial rewards on offer were part of his thinking when he joined Al Nassr last August, but hoped for something different.

“Many of us have also come here not only for football,” he added. “Many of us are happy with that, but I am also looking for something beyond that is not the economic part and such. “In terms of quality of life, I expected something different, because in the end here you spend three hours a day in the car. Riyadh is a waste of traffic, of time wasted in the car.”

Ronaldo, however, took a different approach when speaking at that same Dubai event and said the SPL is “more competitive” than France’s Ligue 1. Now aged 38, Ronaldo has scored 38 goals in 44 games for Al Nassr, since joining them in November 2022 after forcing his release from Manchester United.

“To be honest, I think the Saudi league is not worse than the French league, in my opinion. In Saudi, I think it is more competitive,” Ronaldo said. “They can say whatever they want; it is just an opinion. I have played here for one year, so I know what I am talking about. But, I think right now we are better than the French league.”

That claim was quickly contested but even without an injured Ronaldo, Al Nassr, currently second in the SPL, thumped Lionel Messi’s MLS side Inter Miami 6-0 in a friendly in Riyadh on Thursday. Messi, who resisted Saudi Arabia’s advances and instead became the statement signing in the US last summer, only came on in the 83rd minute having initially been ruled out injured, too.

Messi appears with Al Nassr 6-0 up (Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

“It must be said that one league has a lot of money and total freedom and the other league has a little less money and less freedom (and) many more rules,” said Miami manager Gerardo Martino, for whose players this is still pre-season.

One Saudi club trying to make a splash in January were Al Shabab. Also based in Riyadh, they are not one of the four teams (Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, Al Ahli) now owned by the Saudi nation’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

But even for Al-Shabab, who are 11th in the 18-team SPL, it turned out to be, Rakitic aside, a winter of rejection. They failed in a bid to sign currently clubless former Manchester United and Spain goalkeeper David de Gea while Davide Ancelotti, an assistant coach at Real Madrid and son of their manager Carlo Ancelotti, turned down their advances.

Davide Ancelotti wanted to test the market before committing to Saudi Arabia, with interest from Premier League clubs not beyond the realms of possibility. Part of the conversations between the Italian and Al Shabab took place when Madrid were in Riyadh last month, as the city hosts the annual four-team Spanish Super Cup tournament.

Al Shabab also tried to tempt Suso, Rakitic’s 30-year-old Sevilla team-mate and fellow midfielder, but the La Liga side closed the door on them. There is a good chance those talks recommence at the end of the season as the player is attracted to the prospect of a move to the SPL.

Jose Mourinho, sacked as coach of Italian side Roma in January, was being targeted by them, too. But there is a strong sense from those who have visited the club that drastic improvements to their facilities are needed before they will be able to lure such a manager.

Even Rakitic’s contract is a relatively short one, with the Croatian signing until the end of the 2024-25 season. This gives him an easy way out if he becomes unhappy in his new surroundings. As for Sevilla, they were thrilled to free themselves of his salary and seek reinforcements.

Sergio Arribas, Almeria’s 22-year-old midfielder, was another on Al Shabab’s shopping list. Their initial proposal was for the player to be paid around €5million net per season for up to five years. But Arribas wanted to stay in Europe. Neither Almeria or Real Madrid, who have first refusal to re-sign a player they only sold in the summer, were informed of any formal offer.

They also attempted to prise Miguel Almiron from PIF-owned Newcastle, but a final offer never arrived. As Al Shabab are not one of Saudi’s four PIF clubs, Newcastle were not negotiating with a related-ownership club over a fee, though it is uncertain what further checks a deal for Almiron would have been subject to had it progressed.

“A decade ago, players might have gone to Saudi Arabia at the end of their career,” said an agent regarding the profile of player now being targeted by SPL teams. “Now, a player can come to Saudi (at a younger age) and then move to another top league in Europe. That is a big advantage for the project here, as it has become a top-10 league.”

It says everything about how quiet the market was that one of the more interesting deals saw Seko Fofana, the former Manchester City and Fulham midfielder, being loaned from Al Nassr to Al Ettifaq to help fill the void left by Henderson – despite the 28-year-old having only arrived at Al Nassr from French club Lens in July.

However, sources with a good understanding of the SPL are expecting a summer window of business similar to last year’s, where Saudi teams disrupted the market and announced themselves as a new frontier for the sport.

Casemiro, Manchester United

Casemiro has been cited as the sort of player SPL clubs may move for this summer (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

A well-placed source who has worked on multiple big transfers in football believes last month was always going to be quiet in terms of incomings, while adding that the summer push will see Saudi clubs target young and mid-career players as opposed to those nearing retirement.

The fact that Planes walked out on La Liga’s Real Betis, having only joined last summer, to take a job with Al Ittihad speaks to the idea that the Saudis are still showing ambition.

Planes immediately hired Franc Carbo, another key executive from Barcelona who had the difficult task of negotiating for the Catalan club with La Liga over the salary cap. The thirst for former Barca executives does not end there, with Esteve Calzada, most recently at Manchester City, becoming CEO at Riyadh’s Al Hilal, the current SPL leaders.

This points to the notion that Saudi football is getting its house in order, ensuring strong internal structures are in place, before seeking to disrupt the market once again.

The SPL also announced last year that it will be making changes to its first-team squad rules, and will allow each club to register 10 — it is currently eight — non-Saudis, with eight of those allowed to participate in a given match, starting from next season. This will undoubtedly have an influence on the business the league does in the summer window, and there will again be licence to spend vast sums.

With the men’s World Cup heading to Saudi Arabia in 2034, the quest to become one of football’s powerhouses is not going to slow down, even if there is discontent among some of the first arrivals.

Having made such a splash, they cannot afford for it to.

Other contributors: Mario Cortegana, Dermot Corrigan, Oliver Kay, Adam Leventhal, Guillermo Rai

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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