It seems that barely a day goes by without some new player being linked with a big-money move to play football in Saudi Arabia. Whatever your thoughts on the ethics of the matter, there is no denying that the league in the Arab nation is going to be stronger than it ever has been.
Under the relatively liberal (as long as you stay on the right side of him) Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, or MBS, Saudi Arabia has long been embarking on a process of what many deem sportswashing. As with other nations in the region, Saudi Arabia are looking to build soft power, broaden their appeal as a tourist destination and reduce their reliance on oil, through sport. Football was long a slightly strange omission from the sports being favoured but that has changed dramatically in the last year or so.
It is believed that MBS hopes to see his country host the World Cup, possibly as early as 2030, even if that is as a co-host. They are set to host the 2023 Club World Cup in December, in Jeddah, and have appeared at the World Cup finals six times, including in 2018 and 2022. Huge investment in their domestic league is underway to strengthen their position as a future World Cup host and in this feature, we take a look at the best players who have already signed up.
List of Top Footballers in Saudi League
Below is a list of the most famous footballers who are confirmed signings for the Saudia Professional League (SPL). This is correct as of the 19th of July 2023. The 2023/24 season is set to start on the 11th of August 2023 and so there are likely to be further additions in the weeks ahead.
- Edouard Mendy
- Roberto Firminho
- Kalidou Koulibaly
- Ruben Neves
- Karim Benzema
- N’Golo Kante
- Cristiano Ronaldo
- Marcelo Brozovic
- David Ospina
- Ever Banega
- Alex Telles
Saudi League Structure and Foreign Players
There are 18 teams in the SPL and each is permitted up to eight foreign players per season. At the time of writing only two have filled their eight spots, so we are confident there will be more big names to come. As well as the footballers mentioned above there are several very decent Brazilians signed up to play in the SPL in 2023/24. In fact, in total there are currently 27 Brazilians on loan or permanent deals in the league and only three clubs do not have at least one Brazilian among their rank.
Currently there are no domestic managers in control at any of the 18 top-flight Saudi teams. Two remain managerless, whilst Steven Gerrard, Slaven Bilic and Nuno Espirito Santo are perhaps the three bosses with the biggest profiles in the SPL.
Ronaldo is clearly not the player he was but is one of the biggest stars in sport nonetheless. He moved to Al Nassr on the 1st of January 2023 and netted 14 league goals in 16 appearances for them. Capped 200 times by Portugal he remains the captain of the national side, for now at least, and was a huge, flagship capture for Saudi football. He was reported to be on a deal worth €200m a year with a signing-on bonus worth around half that amount. Despite his goals, his club were unable to win the league last term, finishing second.
Benzema is, like Ronaldo, past his best and is 35 years old but even so, he is hardly out to pasture and won the Ballon d’Or in 2022. He has, like Ronaldo, won virtually every prize football has to offer and, like the Portuguese, came to Saudi Arabia for the culture and sporting challenge. Oh, no, hang on, it was the €200m a year that did it. Benzema moved on a free transfer (bargain!) and will play for Al-Ittihad, the defending champions. There is no doubt that the possibility of putting an SPL medal alongside his five Champions Leagues ones must have proved too great a temptation to ignore.
Fabinho joins Benzema at Al-Ittihad and at 29 is a relative spring chicken. Leaving Liverpool for Jeddah will be made easier by the many Brazilians he will have both at his club and in the wider league. Oh, and the money. That will definitely help too. Fabinho is not of the same standing as the former Real Madrid duo above but he has won the Champions League and the Premier League and clearly still has a lot to offer.
Kante is, like Benzema, a practising Muslim and that at least does make a move to Saudi seem a little more logical. When you also factor in the insane money on offer (have we mentioned that?), it becomes relatively easy to see why Kante would leave Chelsea for Jeddah, where he will be another big recruit for Al-Ittihad, who must surely be favourites to claim another title. At the age of 32, Kante should have a few good years yet, although he has struggled with a range of injuries in the past year or so. His humble nature will appeal to locals and as a player who has won the World Cup, the Nations League, the Champions League and the Premier League, he has obvious appeal to the SPL.
Firminho joins his former Liverpool colleague Fabinho in Saudi and will hope to get more game time than he did during his latter years at Anfield. He joined Al-Ahli, who are based in Jeddah, in July 2023 and will bring huge creativity to a side that were promoted at the end of the 2022/23 campaign. His experience, movement and the fact he is a real team player should be big assets to his new side, who have also brought in Edouard Mendy from Chelsea.