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Saudi Arabia: The rising star of international football

Saudi Arabia: The rising star of international football
Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Euronews
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In partnership with Media City Qatar. Saudi Arabia has got everyone talking as they continue to attract some of football's star players.

The world witnessed one of the biggest shake ups in football history during the summer transfer window of 2023.

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It was business as usual across Europe, with leagues signing players left and right. But Saudi Arabia got everyone talking as they continue to attract some of football's star players.

"Football is already something of a way of life in Saudi Arabia. They were already seeing 70-80,000 spectators in the stadium every week before all this began with bringing in superstars. They want to make the next step in development." explained Mohammed Hamdi, former director of Al Jazira FC.

Cristiano Ronaldo paved the way to the Middle East with a move to Al-Nassr shortly after the FIFA 2022 World Cup in Qatar. After a well-documented fall-out at Manchester United, the star was declared a free agent during the tournament. And he continued to play for his country and progressed through the knockout rounds.

On December 30th 2022, he signed a pre-contract that became effective on January 1st. According to reports, Ronaldo's salary is the highest in football history. His new club Al-Nassr instantly felt the benefits of landing such a massive star. Overnight, their profile as a football club skyrocketed. They gained over 15 million Instagram followers in less than a week as Ronaldo fans from all around the globe were desperate to learn about his new club.

Samah Zidan/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Ronaldo has been a star in SaudiSamah Zidan/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

On the pitch, his transfer garnered mixed results. Scoring 14 goals in 16 appearances is a fantastic result, but his team could only finish runners-up in the Pro League behind Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal.

His arrival in the Middle East has opened the floodgates for others to follow. Several top-level players have left Europe and headed for Saudi, including the current Ballon 'or Winner and Ronaldo's former Real Madrid teammate, Karim Benzema, who has joined Jeddah-based Al-Ittihad.

Uri Levy, the founder of Middle-East football news website Babagol, believes his arrival has enormous cultural significance alongside his sporting acclaim.

"I think Karim Benzema is a player who is good enough to start for any team in Europe this season, but he chooses Saudi. I also think that Benzema being a practising Muslim could mean he becomes a more familiar face for the project. Obviously, you need to score goals and provide assists, but he will get unconditional love."

STR/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Practicing muslim Benzema will be a cultural figureSTR/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Also, joining Benzema and Ronaldo in the region has been a host of English Premier League talent. Ex-Chelsea players Edouard Mendy and N'Golo Kante have joined Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad, respectively. While, Wolverhampton Wanderers starman, Ruben Neves, joined the champions Al-Hilal, hoping his new team can retain the title next season.

Players aren't the only ones making the move to Saudi Arabia. Steven Gerrard signed up as the new manager for Al-Ettifaq, in Dammam. His signing is the first big-name managerial appointment in the region. The former Liverpool midfielder has had momentous experience in the English Premier League. He also won the Scottish Premier League with Celtic Rangers just two years ago. Gerrard is considered one of the most exciting younger managers Ettifaq could have endeavoured to hire.

"It's a win-win situation for both sides. Gerrard needs a fresh start and a place where he can, you know, put his fingerprints on his football. I don't want to say he will have endless resources to do so, but he will have very generous resources to pick his players and his methods." Uri Levy continued.

Ettifaq is one of the smaller clubs in the Saudi Pro League. Gerrard may have difficulty attracting big-name players. With less money to spend than some of the bigger clubs, their goal this season will be to finish in the top six next season. That would be considered a success for Steve Gerrard.

Saudi Arabia is a leading hotspot for top footballers. Making it an exciting time to follow football in the Middle East. Rumour has it that many more high-profile players could make a move next time the transfer window opens in January.

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