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Saudi Arabia’s Expensive Soccer Experiment Is Already Showing Cracks

Jordan Henderson of Ajax during the Dutch Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and RKC Waalwijk at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on January 21, 2024 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Maurice van Steen/ANP via Getty Images

While the Saudi Arabian soccer bubble has not quite burst yet, it's not hard to make out a certain straining at the circumference. Five months after a summer spending spree that made a mockery of the concepts of "money" and "hypocrisy," it's already become clear that loads of cash and some flashy acquisitions alone do not a sustainable league make.

Last summer's great migration of players from Europe to the Arabian Peninsula already threatens to become a reverse exodus of sorts. It starts with Jordan Henderson. The former Liverpool captain left the Premier League over the summer to join Al-Ettifaq in a deal worth €14 million in a transfer fee, and—in theory—millions more in wages. I say "in theory," because Henderson's deal was heavily back-loaded. He agreed to be paid out on the backside of the deal for tax reasons, as reported by The Athletic. This meant the reported €820,000 a week—a figure that Henderson had disputed—was in reality much lower during the initial period of his contract. But this month Henderson and Al-Ettifaq mutually agreed to release him from his contract, after which the Englishman agreed to sign with Ajax. So what's the deal here?

The main reason motivating Henderson's return to Europe would appear to be his desire to make England's roster for the European Championship this summer, and the idea that his chances of earning a call-up increase if he plays in Europe, even if it's in a secondary league like the Eredivisie, even for a struggling—though recently somewhat stabilized—team like Ajax. That all makes sense, but it's not like the Euros were randomly moved to this year. Henderson knew that moving to Saudi Arabia would conflict with the desire to play in one more international tournament, but did it anyway. And in fact, England manager Gareth Southgate has continued to include Henderson in his national team rosters even after the midfielder made the move to Saudi Arabia. Clearly there's something else going on beyond the 2024 Euros.

Henderson's departure hints at problems within the Saudi soccer apparatus, problems large enough to lead him to break his contract and head to the Netherlands. Upon leaving Liverpool, Henderson made sure to note that he was going to Saudi Arabia to "grow the game" in the country—a convenient smokescreen meant to draw attention away from the fact that one of soccer's biggest ostensible LGBTQ+ allies was moving to a country where sexual activity between same-sex partners is criminalized. Having obliterated his off-the-field reputation, and having not even exchanged it for the wildly inflated salary he'd planned to earn over the lifetime of his deal, you can't help but wonder whether Henderson thinks any of it was worth it.

But Henderson is not alone. Other members of the Saudi league's big-name recent signings are also reportedly itching to leave now that the initial honeymoon of high paydays have flown by. Henderson's former Liverpool teammate Roberto Firmino has been linked to a loan move back to the Premier League; his Saudi career started with a debut hat trick, but he has failed to score since and looks set to be leaving the country, either back to England or to Brazil. Real Madrid legend Karim Benzema is also reportedly looking at a loan move to England. The story is that he's in a feud with his manager, and is seemingly not having a good time at his new club. Arsenal and Chelsea are the two teams considering springing him.

Elsewhere, former Manchester City defender and current Al-Nassr player Aymeric Laporte said recently in an interview with Spanish newspaper As that many players are "discontented" in Saudi Arabia, citing that the promises made about lavish off-field lives have failed to materialize, as well as a complaint about, of all things, the traffic: “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.”

Laporte went on to say that players don't have the time to relax and explore the country, given how many games are played between league ties, cup matches, and national team duties: "The thing is that we are almost never [home], because we play games every three days and it is exhausting. [...] Between that and then you go to the National Team and they don't give you days off and such, mentally and physically it is complicated, even if the pace is different or somewhat lower. It's something hard."

Laporte's comments are especially noteworthy given their timing. Just days before the defender's interview with As, his Al-Nassr teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, the face and cornerstone of the Saudi soccer project, went the other direction. According to Ronaldo, the Saudi Pro League is not merely a good competition, but is in fact better than France's Ligue 1, due to its quality and balance: "In the French league, I think you have two or three teams who are a good level. In Saudi, I think it is more competitive. They can say whatever they want, it is just opinion."

Ronaldo is paid millions upon millions of Euros to serve as both a soccer player and a walking billboard for the Saudi soccer program, which late last year landed its biggest coup yet by winning the rights to host the 2034 World Cup. So the Portuguese forward's stumping for the league is no surprise, even if nobody in their right mind is buying what he's selling. In light of Henderson's departure and the reported unhappiness of names like Firmino and Benzema, it's not hard to see why the league's chief propaganda officer might try to bolster the competition's credibility with some blatant puffery. But here in the real world, it's worth remembering that the Saudi Pro League is less a true competitor of the major European leagues, and something more akin to MLS in a previous era: A place where Europe-based legends and stellar players wind down their career with heightened financial gains and notoriety.

Like MLS in that era, though, the Saudi Pro League now has to deal with the ramifications of that setup; namely, that players might move over and find it's not all that it's cracked up to be, and therefore look for a life raft out. MLS has mostly settled for life as a developing league today, but there is simply too much money involved in making Saudi Arabian soccer great for it to accept a similarly humble fate.

Instead, with the prospect of hosting a World Cup in 10 years' time, it seems more likely that the country's Public Investment Fund will continue pumping in money to keep the league lousy with name-brand players. What those in charge might hope for is that they attract more participants like Ronaldo, who are willing to join the Saudis in charge in engaging in the only game that matters—the PR one—and fewer players who come to the country expecting all of the glamor and riches and competitive seriousness promised, only to be disappointed when the desert oasis they'd come for proves to be only a mirage.

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