From Cristiano Ronaldo To Neymar Jr.: The Stars Signing Up For Saudi’s Football Project

Saudi Arabia has emerged as a force in the football transfer market this year, offering eye-watering salaries that have lured a host of big names including Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom.

Here, AFP Sport takes a look at some of the biggest names to make the move:

The stars

Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in January to play for Riyadh-based Al-Nassr is what first drew global attention to ongoing efforts to boost the Saudi Pro League.

He was followed by his former Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner who signed a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad in June.

Just a few days later, fellow Frenchman N’Golo Kante joined the same Jeddah-based club, also on a three-year deal.

The veteran and member of France’s victorious 2018 World Cup squad will form a partnership with Brazilian Fabinho, arriving from Liverpool, in midfield.

Still buzzing from his historic FA Cup semi-final hat-trick for Manchester City in April, Algeria captain Riyad Mahrez has signed for four years with Jeddah-based Al-Ahli, a transfer estimated at 35 million euros.

Senegalese star Sadio Mane, who helped Liverpool to the Premier League and Champions League titles before heading to a Bundesliga crown with Bayern Munich, signed with Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the start of this month for a reported annual salary of 40 million euros plus 10 million euros in results-based bonuses.

The latest coup for the Saudis is Brazil forward Neymar who signed on Tuesday for Al-Hilal on a two-year contract after six seasons with French champions Paris Saint-Germain.

Sources close to the deal say his salary, like Benzema and Kante, will be around 100 million euros per season.

PSG are likely to receive the same amount as a fee, considerably less than the world record fee of 222 million euros they paid Barcelona for his services in 2017.

– Past their prime –

Along with top-tier stars, several other big names in the sport are starting new chapters in Saudi Arabia.

Marcelo Brozovic, who captained Inter Milan in last season’s Champions League final, has signed a three-year deal with Al-Nassr, who reportedly paid a transfer fee of 18 million euros.

Ex-Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has joined Al-Ettifaq until 2026, drawing heavy criticism given his past support for the LGBTQ community and the fact that Saudi Arabia outlaws homosexuality.

Another former Liverpool star, Brazilian international Roberto Firmino, left the team after eight seasons for Al-Ahli, who have also landed Edouard Mendy of Senegal.

Kalidou Koulibaly, for his part, bade farewell to Stamford Bridge for Al-Hilal for a reported transfer fee of 23 million euros.

– Rising talent –

It is not just fading stars who are making the trip to the Gulf.

The 28-year-old Ivorian midfielder Seko Fofana has also joined Ronaldo at Al-Nassr, leaving French outfit Lens as they prepare to return to the Champions League.

After eight years with Lazio, Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, also 28, has inked a three-year deal with Al-Hilal.

He will be joined by 26-year-old Ruben Neves, the Portuguese star who was previously tipped for a move to Barcelona.

Another 26-year-old, Frenchman Allan Saint-Maximin, has joined Al-Ahli from Newcastle, which is 80-percent owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.

– The coaches –

The Saudi Pro League has also drawn renowned coaches.

Dismissed by Aston Villa in October, iconic former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard signed with Al-Ettifaq until 2025, and a clip of him introducing himself in halting Arabic has gone viral on social media.

Former Croatia and West Ham boss Slaven Bilic will join the Al-Fateh bench.

After leaving Fenerbahce in June, former Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has returned to Al-Hilal, where he worked in 2018-2019.

And in late July, Al-Ahli named 35-year-old German Matthias Jaissle, regarded as one of the most promising managers of his generation, as their new coach.

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