The idea of the Saudi Pro League being a looming threat always felt like a touch out there, even as it gained relevance last summer. It certainly looked like a fertile dumping ground for clubs to offload players who were aging out of significant transfer fees, seeing diminished playing time, and needing another big payday to get them off the books. Sure, a few players in their prime made the move to the Middle East, like Ruben Neves, but it was still predominantly players either in their thirties or had already established themselves in their thirties cashing in on some blood and oil money.
What we’ve seen lately is that the Saudi government’s efforts to elevate the Saudi Pro League to the level of Europe’s Big Five are being thwarted by the fact that some of their new recruits are „hating it there.“ With the opening of the transfer window in January, there have been numerous reports of players who came to the desert in the summer trying to leave their contracts after just six months. Most notably, Jordan Henderson, who has traded in his stellar reputation as both a player and a human being for the money and now wishes to return to the Premier League to secure his place with the English team for next summer’s Euros. But he’s not alone. Rumors are swirling around names like Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino, and possibly even Neymar trying to reverse their decision to give up just about everything for money.
This is a combination of reasons. Firstly, it’s simply not a hospitable climate to play in, something these players might have realized beforehand. It’s currently temperate, but when the league resumes in February after the Asian Cup, the beginning of the season had temperatures that were unbearable, and the spring temperatures won’t be any better. Even in October, the average temperature is over 90°F. It’s likely to be the same next season too.
Secondly, despite the hefty sums being used to lure recognizable names to Saudi Arabia, few seem to be making a significant impact, at least enough of an impact to draw a large audience. Henderson’s team Al Ettifaq, for example, only averages 7,800 fans per game. Only four of the 18 teams average more than 10,000 per game. The league as a whole averages around 8,000 per game. It probably doesn’t make for a particularly exciting working atmosphere when you’re not breaking a sweat in front of anyone.
Thirdly, and perhaps the main reason players are eager to leave, is that it’s not a very happy personal life for some. Given the restrictions or outright suppression imposed on women by Saudi laws, the players‘ wives aren’t exactly thrilled there. Some have chosen to stay where they were, leading to a long-distance partnership that certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The language barrier is already a major challenge, but the move from Europe to Saudi Arabia is more than just a culture shock for players‘ families.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Henderson’s team has been poor this season so far, and in combination with the lower level of play, he might not fancy losing every week after achieving great success with Liverpool. Firmino isn’t even a regular at Al-Ahli and may just be looking for a place where he can be. Benzema has faced heavy criticism from fans and the media at Al-Attihad and might think that he definitely didn’t sign up for that.
Money certainly cures many ills, and none of these players has actually left yet. And their stories might not dissuade the next wave from taking the disproportionately large offers next summer as the league continues its efforts to improve its product. But all this was foreseeable and likely won’t change in the near future. It will still be hot, the level will still be low, the atmosphere will be a notch or two below what the players are used to, and the rules probably won’t change much either. The takeover of football by Saudi Arabia might have to wait a while.
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