The Premier League is missing key players like Cristiano Ronaldo and N'Golo Kanté. They've left for the Saudi Pro League.
- The English Premier League kicked off this month without key players like Cristiano Ronaldo and N'Golo Kanté.
- They have opted to join the Saudi Pro League instead, which has been poaching the world's best players.
The English Premier League made its return earlier this month, but some familiar faces were notably absent.
Big names like Cristiano Ronaldo, Jordan Henderson, Riyad Mahrez, Rúben Neves, and N'Golo Kanté were all missing from the pitch. They've joined the dozens of players flocking to the Saudi Pro League in Saudi Arabia.
Unprecedented contracts are attracting the stars to the Middle Eastern league, which has spent about $444 million this summer, BBC reported, citing data from soccer website Transfermarkt.
The country has been using its $700 billion Public Investment Fund fund to invest in sports, introducing the term "sportswashing" — or using sports to distract from a state's authoritarian realities — to the broader public.
As of late July, the Saudi Arabian government had spent $6.3 billion on sports deals since 2021, The Guardian reported.
A number of the players who have made the switch are in the twilight of their careers and are seeking to bank as much money as possible while they can still play.
Jordan Henderson, 33, is one of the most notable English stars to have signed a mega-contract with a Saudi club. He'll earn about $880,000 a week at Al-Ettifaq, The Guardian reported.
Another major move was former Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kanté, 32, who won the 2018 World Cup with France. He's earning about $109 million per year in the new league, ESPN reported.
It all started last November with rumors that Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most recognizable names in soccer, was close to joining Saudi club Al-Nassr in a deal worth up to $200 million a year. Rumblings turned into reality in December, when Ronaldo confirmed his move, becoming the highest-paid athlete in the world, according to Forbes.
Other European leagues have also seen a host of big-money moves.
At the end of July, Saudi club Al-Hilal made a record offer to 24-year-old Paris Saint Germain player Kylian Mbappé. The French phenom was offered a contract that could be worth close to $760 million annually, including image rights and commercial arrangements, The Guardian reported — though he turned down the deal.
After failing to get the Mbappé deal over the line, the club locked in on his former teammate and Brazil icon Neymar. Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, a billionaire and supporter of the club, flew the former Barcelona star, who is 31 years old, out to Saudi Arabia in a private Boeing 747 to join the club. The star will reportedly earn $164 million a year.
Other major names to have headed to Saudi Arabia include former Real Madrid and France striker Karim Benzema and former Bayern Munich winger Sadio Mané.
Spending likely won't slow down over the next month, as the Saudi league's transfer window, or the deadline for which players from other leagues can join a Saudi club, doesn't close until September 20.
Saudi Pro League clubs are also targeting high-profile managers in their push to develop the sport in the country.
Former Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, who had spells managing Scottish club Rangers and Premier League side Aston Villa, also relocated to the Middle East to manage Al-Ettifaq. Former Tottenham Hotspur manager Nuno Espírito Santo has also made the move.
It isn't just soccer, either. The PGA, which organizes the most prestigious professional golf tours like the US Open, merged with the Saudi-owned LIV golf tour in June, forming a joint entity that is backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
"Something new is obviously happening" in regards to the Saudi Pro League, Richard Masters, the CEO of the Premier League, told the BBC last month. But he added that he wasn't "too concerned at the moment" with its recent flurry of activity.
"It has taken us 30 years to get to the position that we have in terms of profile, competitiveness and the revenue streams that we have," he added.
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