It’s often said that when it comes to football, more than anything else, money talks.
Players will arrive at strange teams, and in some cases not even know what club they’ve joined (we’re looking at you, Robinho), but they know they’ll earn a small fortune for doing so.
And that is all the Saudi Pro League has. They offer no heritage, no history making. They offer a restrictive living environment which marginalises western family values. They offer 45-50 degree heat every day. They offer ramshackle organisation. They offer stadiums bereft of fans and atmosphere. They offer amateur-level local players that drag the overall standard of the competition down to a laughing stock.
No, all they can offer is a stupid amount of money. And for much of last summer, it looked as if that would and could be enough.
Players flocked to the ‘project’ though, crucially, none at the peak of their powers. Lionel Messi – likely with some influence from his wife and children – and Kylian Mbappe chose to give their reckless spending a wide berth.
Cristiano Ronaldo went, though, because of course he did. And the timing of his blatant PR offensive this week, where he claimed the standard of the Pro League was “better than Ligue 1” may as well have been written down as a hostage statement.
Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that all the money in the world isn’t enough when everything else about the experience of playing in Saudi is utterly dismal.
Saudi Pro League stars aren’t happy
Jordan Henderson kicked off the backlash. He himself was in the firing line for going in the first place, and arguably had more to lose than any other by admitting defeat on the project despite making promises to ‘progress the game’ while there.
Now he’s at Ajax, and reports suggest he might not collect a single penny from his catastrophic stint in the middle East.
Aymeric Laporte was next, and he referred to not only his situation but also seemed to speak on behalf of other European players who are not exactly having the time of their lives.
He said: “Many of us have also come here not only for football. 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.”
And Sergei Milinkovic-Savic has allegedly told his former Lazio team-mates that he is ‘desperate’ to return to Serie A – not exactly an endorsement of his short period spent in Saudi. Roberto Firmino and Karim Benzema are also looking to secure loan moves back to Europe.
And as well as Ronaldo’s counter-offensive, the response from Saudi was as transparent as it was obvious; to announce that they will be spending £2 billion this summer in order to bolster the project further.
Let’s be clear – the Saudi Pro League project is not dead. As long as there’s a bottomless pit of money – and it seems that for as long as Mohammed bin Salman is around, there will be – players will always be willing to accept it.
It would also appear that if you are single and aren’t interested in the restrictions placed upon women, then the riches on offer might be more palatable.
But the idea that it would become a seriously competitive league, one that can offer the equivalent standard of performance and quality that can be found in Europe, will not be the case any time soon.
It’s one thing having an abundance of money, but it’s another thing being able to spend it on nice things, and it seems that will remain an issue as long as Saudi is completely in opposition to a westernised way of life.
And when you compare what Saudi Arabia has done in other sports – the totally botched, bloated, unwatchable LIV Golf, to their most recent ‘Golden Ball’ concept in snooker – it’s pretty clear they have no interest in improving any sport or indeed making anything better.
It’s all about buying a share of fandom, something that they will never, ever, ever, be able to create organically. Because other than handing over a briefcase, they have absolutely no idea what that entails.
So, Saudi’s association with football is not over, but the fact it is taking something of a black eye does restore some faith that there’s more to sport than a novelty cheque.