As camera lenses focused on Premier League managers at the start of the season, it was a fair question from football reporters to ask to what extent the Saudi Pro League was rivalling European competitions. Pep Guardiola had just lost Riyad Mahrez, a key member of his Treble-winning team, to Al-Ahli and Aymeric Laporte would soon join Al-Nassr.
“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 going to play in the Saudi league,” said the Manchester City manager. “I think in the close future it’s going to happen more and more.”
Fast-forward six months and most of those “top, top” players are still there but a few cracks have started to appear. Jordan Henderson, the only England international to move to Saudi Arabia in the summer, has come back to Europe after failing to settle at Al-Ettifaq. His old Liverpool team-mate Roberto Firmino cannot get in the team at Al-Ahli, which has led to uncertainty over his future at the club.
And the Real Madrid great Karim Benzema sparked questions over whether he will be available when he was absent from Al-Ittihad’s mid-season training camp during the SPL break for the Asian Cup. Sources insist the 36-year-old is not moving but there is a different feel to this window compared to the summer.
The Saudis were bidding £150 million for Mohamed Salah on the last deadline day, while this time around there has been less movement, with each club already full with their eight places for foreign players. They are expected to increase the quota to 10 at the end of the season to allow more pulling power in the market.
When Henderson was interviewed by The Athletic over his Saudi move, he insisted the move was “positive” and used the word several times as he justified his move. Six months on and his short-lived spell in the Middle East has only highlighted the negatives that a player could face.
The decision, Henderson said in his farewell, was because of his family. They failed to settle and moving to Saudi Arabia would be an upheaval for any family. “I’ll keep watching & hoping for your success,” was how Henderson signed off, although he will be one of the few, with the current England international playing in front of crowds that dipped under 1,000 at times.
His ill-fated time in the SPL showed that it takes a certain type of player to travel and adapt to those new surroundings. And that it is worth their while to stick at it too. Players moving to Saudi will only get tax free earnings after spending a full financial year away from the UK. The Telegraph revealed Henderson deferred his wages, thought to be for tax purposes, without doubts over whether he will be paid in full for his spell at Al-Ettifaq.
The Henderson saga could be a watershed for the SPL. Do they fade away like the Chinese Super League, which was breaking transfer records in 2016 for Chelsea’s Ramires and paying Graziano Pelle more than £250,000 a week but soon imposed financial rules including a salary cap. After drifting into insignificance, Covid finished some clubs off.
Saudi Arabia at least has the World Cup in the bag and will host the biggest tournament on the globe in 2034. They still have Ronaldo. They still have Neymar, although he is injured for now. And there is no sign of the money running out. But will they get another current England international? When Gareth Southgate last spoke about Henderson he said he was planning to go out to watch him play, but had not done so yet. With Henderson booed by his own fans when he played at Wembley, it would appear a big risk for player to swap the big European leagues for the SPL.
Some have been happy with the move. Anecdotally, there is said to be a difference between those moving to the four clubs owned by the “Public Investment Fund” (PIF) of Saudi Arabia and other outfits. Henderson was at a non-PIF club and Steven Gerrard, Al-Ettifaq’s manager, has discussed how they are laying foundations with a new stadium and training base.
“We knew at the beginning this was a big job and a challenging job. We had to put in place new infrastructure like building a new training ground in phases and building a new stadium. But a lot has been achieved,” said Gerrard.
“The Saudi league is very competitive. It’s got some outstanding players. Some outstanding coaches. They know they’re not in the top five leagues in the world, but they’re determined to get as close as they can be.”