In January 2023, Cristiano Ronaldo made headlines by leaving Europe for Saudi Arabia, following a controversial interview with Morgan Piers. His return to Manchester United had ended on a sour note for all parties involved, and his subsequent move to Al Nassr did not yield any trophies for the 5-time Ballon d'Or winner.
Initially, many saw Ronaldo's transfer as an escape route for the Portuguese captain out of Europe. However, as the summer transfer window opened, it became clear that there was more to these moves than meets the eye.
Within the first 20 days of the transfer window, Saudi Arabian clubs secured the signings of some stars from prominent clubs in Europe, sparking numerous speculations. Does the question arise: Are these moves happening because Ronaldo joined Al Nassr, or are these veterans simply following the money?
The answer, in short, is both. Let's examine the facts.
European stars have been venturing to Saudi Arabia or other regions outside Europe, such as China, long before Ronaldo even considered it. However, what sets this wave of transfers apart is both the sheer number of moves and the calibre of players involved.
In the past, players like Oscar from Chelsea, Ighalo from Watford, Vincent Aboubakar, and several others made similar moves. While these were undoubtedly talented players, they did not possess the status of being World Class, FIFPRO XI members, FIFA Best players, or Ballon d'Or winners.
They were players whom numerous European clubs still held a strong interest in, yet they opted for lucrative moves primarily driven by financial motivations, along with the added attention Ronaldo's move to the Saudi Pro League generated.
Karim Benzema, who followed Ronaldo's path, was the first major star to make a move. As a Ballon d'Or winner, UEFA Best Player, and the captain of Real Madrid, Benzema experienced a disappointing season plagued by injuries.
Although Madrid was keen to retain him, Benzema chose to pursue a substantial financial opportunity. Carlo Ancelotti, the coach of Real Madrid, even deemed Benzema's departure a "surprise." It is worth noting that Benzema had already achieved everything possible in Europe, played for arguably the "best team in the world," and amassed numerous individual accolades, including the coveted Ballon d'Or.
Benzema joined Al-Ittihad, not the same team Ronaldo had joined, indicating that his decision was not solely influenced by Ronaldo's move. Rather, it was a now-or-never move for Benzema, recognizing that he would not receive another opportunity for such a lucrative deal in his career.
Another confirmed star to join Saudi Arabia is N'Golo Kante, who reunited with fellow Frenchman Benzema at Al-Ittihad. Kante, 32, faced injury troubles and made only 9 appearances, with 8 starts, in the recently concluded 2022-23 season. Having already won the Champions League, Premier League, and World Cup, and having been named in the FIFPRO XI on several occasions, Kante is undoubtedly a top-tier player.
However, due to his injury concerns and the allure of a significant financial move, Kante opted for Saudi Arabia. While Ronaldo's action may have played a part, it is safe to say that money was the primary driving force behind Kante's decision.
Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly completed a move from Chelsea to the Saudi Pro League on Sunday after being deemed surplus to requirements by new coach Mauricio Pochettino as part of a club overhaul. Koulibaly is widely regarded as one of the best defenders of his generation, known for his defensive prowess. However, his form suffered a dip at Chelsea following his move from Napoli.
Notably, Koulibaly joined Al-Hilal, not Ronaldo's team, Al-Nassr. While Ronaldo's move may have influenced the timing of his departure, it is evident that Koulibaly's decision was primarily motivated by another lucrative opportunity.
Now, let's discuss an exception to the trend: Lionel Messi. If Messi had moved to Saudi Arabia, this write-up would have taken a different turn, drawing significant attention to the Middle East.
However, the Argentine maestro opted for a big-money move to America instead. Messi's move also influenced former Barcelona captain Busquets, who joined him at Inter Miami, marking a departure from the other moves mentioned.
Thus, while Ronaldo's move to Saudi Arabia undoubtedly brought attention to the league, it is the substantial financial offers that have enticed several players, with many more expected to follow suit, to relocate to the Middle East.