MANCHESTER – Missing out on Lionel Messi hasn't slowed Saudi Arabia's ambitious recruitment drive as the oil-rich kingdom tries to establish itself as a viable destination for the world’s top players.
Having already lured two of the sport's biggest stars in Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, the Saudis, amid allegations of sportswashing, are targeting a host of other high-profile players from Europe's best leagues.
World Cup and Champions League winner N’Golo Kante became the latest stellar player to head to the lucrative Pro League, signing a three-year contract Wednesday to team up with Benzema at Al-Ittihad.
“It is part of the club’s efforts to establish itself as a top choice for world-class players in the Saudi Professional League,” Al-Ittihad said in a statement.
Messi opted for Inter Miami, rather than the Middle East, but the Saudis are pressing on. Premier League stars like Hakim Ziyech, Kalidou Koulibaly and Ruben Neves are expected to follow Kante this summer.
Chelsea had offered Kante a new contract to stay at Stamford Bridge. But just as Real Madrid discovered in the case of world player of the year Benzema, money talks. France midfielder Kante is reportedly set to earn more than $100 million across the length of his contract.
Benzema will reportedly earn $107 million per year over his three-year contract.
Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr in December in a deal reportedly worth up to $200 million a year.
At the time of that stunning move, it was not clear what Saudi's plan was beyond using Ronaldo's fame to raise the profile of its league. It has since become evident that the former Madrid and Manchester United forward was just the start of a recruitment drive that the country hopes will turn its league into a major player in the sport.
Currently, the Saudi league is considered well below the standard of the top divisions in Europe and South America.
Ronaldo dismissed criticism of his decision, claiming in January the league is “very competitive.”
"People don’t know that, but I know because I saw many games,” he said. ”In Europe my work is done. I won everything and played for the most important clubs in Europe. This is a new challenge.”
It is impossible to ignore the riches on offer as a major motivation to players.
The reported salaries and commercial deals for Ronaldo, Benzema and Kante could earn them a combined figure of nearly $1 billion.
Other countries have embarked on similar projects in the past.
Major League Soccer in America has consistently signed big names like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and now Messi. Before that, the North American Soccer League — most notably the New York Cosmos — enticed superstars like Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore and George Best.
China went on a similar spree from 2015, signing internationals like Carlos Tevez, Pato and Hulk, but that initiative has fizzled out.
It looks like this is just the start of Saudi's plans to grow the profile and quality of its league, while expanding its influence in global sport.
The kingdom’s sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund has taken a majority ownership stake in four of the country’s top clubs, including Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr, as part of a nationalization project encouraging public sector organizations to invest in sports. Soccer teams are seen as a priority under the initiative backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
PIF is described as a “catalyst of Vision 2030,” which is a wide-ranging plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy.
The fund is worth around $700 billion and has already backed the takeover of Premier League club Newcastle and the launch of the contentious LIV Golf tour, which is merging with the PGA tour.
Saudi Arabia has also staged two heavyweight title fights involving Anthony Joshua, hosts Formula One racing and the Italian and Spanish Super Cups. There is also speculation that the country wants to host the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup.
The focus on sport has led to accusations of sportswashing — an effort to rebrand its public image in the face of its human rights record.
Soccer is already hugely popular in the country, with a television audience of more than 215 million watching its league in 2021-22, according to official statistics. More than 1.25 million attended matches during that campaign.
The demand for international broadcast rights could grow as a result of more top players joining the league.
While Saudi soccer should benefit from an influx of talent, Premier League clubs, in particular, look set to cash in.
England's top-flight teams have found it increasingly difficult to offload unwanted players due to the high salaries they pay. Only a limited number of European clubs can match or better the contracts on offer in England, meaning a number of players have had to be sent out on loan, rather than sold.
Chelsea, which spent around $630 million last season, needs to reduce its squad this summer and it is notable that three of its players — Ziyech, Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy — have all been linked with moves to Saudi in addition to Kante.
Those potential deals have raised questions due to a reported connection between PIF and private investment firm Clearlake Capital, which was part of the consortium that bought Chelsea last year.
“The Premier League should put an instant embargo on transfers to Saudi Arabia to ensure the integrity of the game isn’t being damaged,” soccer pundit Gary Neville told the BBC. “Checks should be made on the appropriateness of the transactions."
Chelsea players, however, appear to be a drop in the ocean as far as the scope of Saudi’s ambition and spending power is concerned.
Manchester United's Alex Telles and Arsenal's Thomas Partey are the latest names to be added to a list of targets that only looks set to grow.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson