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Closing of Saudi transfer window brings relief in Europe

PARIS – Football clubs in Europe could breathe a sigh of relief following the closure last week of the transfer window in the Saudi Pro League, where huge spending over the summer was topped only by the English Premier League.

The window shut late on Thursday, six days after the market closed for Europe’s leading leagues, and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah stayed put despite reports that Al-Ittihad had offered £150 million (S$255 million) for the forward.

In the last three months, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema, Brazilian superstar Neymar, and others like Riyad Mahrez, Fabinho, N’Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Ruben Neves and Jordan Henderson have all left major European leagues to go to Saudi Arabia.

That list is far from exhaustive, with analysis by Deloitte’s Sports Business Group saying 37 players moved to the Gulf state from either England, Spain, Italy, Germany or France.

It is not just older players either, with 21-year-old Spain prospect Gabri Veiga leaving Celta Vigo for Al-Ahli.

“It is clear that European football is losing out,” Manchester City midfielder Rodri said.

“We need to somehow stop the exodus of talent because at first it seemed like it was just players at the end of their careers going, but now it is younger players too.”

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Deloitte said Saudi clubs had splashed US$957 million (S$1.3 billion) in the window, ahead of any other league in the world apart from the Premier League, where spending reached almost US$2 billion according to a Fifa report.

The Pro League has been buying players in a revamp as part of the country’s ambitious economic diversification plan, and also hopes to become a leading league on the world stage.

The spending has mostly been fuelled by four teams owned by the Saudi government’s Public Investment Fund – Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr from Riyadh, reigning champions Al-Ittihad and their Jeddah rivals Al-Ahli.

The fees and wages being offered could have a serious impact for previously all-powerful teams in Europe who will not be able to compete.

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Sources close to Neymar’s deal at Al-Hilal said his salary would be around €100 million (S$146 million) per season, far beyond what any club in Europe would realistically offer.

Former Liverpool star Mane left Bayern Munich for Al-Nassr for a reported €40 million a year.

At those figures, the exodus will surely continue, but European executives have dismissed fears of the impact that could have on their competitions.

“I don’t think there is a danger,” said Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, also the chairman of the powerful European Club Association.

“We have the best competition (Champions League) in the world, the biggest clubs and the best players in the world.”

But many more players, particularly those over 30, will not be able to resist the sums on offer.

Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann reportedly turned down a possible move to Saudi Arabia, but he hinted he may go if the chance arises again.

“The figures are huge and can change your family’s life,” he said.

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In contrast to Griezmann, England’s Henderson has been heavily criticised for suggesting that his move to Al-Ettifaq was not motivated by money and it was all about becoming “one of the best leagues in the world”.

Indeed, former PSG star Neymar believes the Saudi league might already have overtaken at least one of Europe’s major players.

“Football there is the same. The ball is round, there are goalposts, and looking at the names of players who have gone to the Saudi league, it might be better than the French league,” he said. AFP

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