The Premier League in England is widely viewed as the biggest and the best league on the planet. From boasting gigantic viewing figures to buying the best players and annually being the most successful in the Champions League over the last decade, it has reigned supreme.
Eight million people tuned into Sky Sports’ coverage of the opening weekend while close to a million tuned in for Chelsea’s clash with Liverpool in the US. Fans all over the globe can’t get enough of watching live Premier League action.
Home to the likes of Manchester United, City and Arsenal, the Premier League continues to attract top talent from around the world. However, it faced serious competition this summer as the Saudi Pro League flexed its financial muscle to land star names.
Following in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema swapped Europe for the Middle East. Riyad Mahrez, Ruben Neves and Jordan Henderson also left England for Saudi Arabia, leaving many to wonder whether this was a one-off summer spending spree or could this be an annual occurrence?
Could the Pro League in Saudi Arabia really overtake the Premier League? Let’s take a look.
Why Is Everyone Going to the Saudi Pro League?
Some players have already admitted that they have moved to the Saudi Pro League for the money. Top earners, including N’Golo Kanté, Benzema and Ronaldo are being paid eye-watering amounts ranging between £87 million to £173m per year.
That’s according to data from Planet Football. Of course, observers will point out that Premier League footballers are already extremely well paid but for a number of professionals, the Saudi figures and opportunity is simply too good to miss.
Kalidou Koulibaly, who left Chelsea for Al-Hilal, candidly admitted: “I can’t deny it, I’m going to Arabia for the money. I will be able to help my whole family to live well, from my parents to my cousins.
“I will be able to invest in the activities of my charity Capitane du Coeur in Senegal. We started to build a clinic in the village where my parents were born and raised. I have many projects to help young people.”
However, he did insist there were other reasons too and said: “I am a Muslim, I am coming to a country that is ideal for me and my family. Mecca is close, I will feel better because I am a believer, so it is important for me.”
Team-mate Ruben Neves, who joined Al-Hilal from Wolves, said the move would allow him to give his family the life ‘I always dreamed of for them’ but claimed the ambition of the football club and the supporters also enticed him.
“The project, Al Hilal being the best club in Asia,” he said when asked why he made the switch. “Since the news started to come, my social media went crazy, it was unbelievable to see the amount of fans Al Hilal have and how passionate they are for football as well so it was a good decision for me and my family I’m sure.”
Cristiano Ronaldo, meanwhile, who joined Al-Nassr in January insisted players moved to Saudi to follow in his footsteps. Of course, he did.
“Where Cristiano goes, it generates greater interest and I knew it was going to be like that,” the former Real Madrid and Manchester United star insisted. “I’m sure that next season more stars will go there [to Saudi Arabia].”
Is the Saudi League a Good League?
While the Saudi Pro League lacks the quality of the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A and LaLiga, Al-Hilal have reached the final of the AFC Champions League, Asia’s Premier football competition, four times in the last six seasons. Al-Ahli also reached the showpiece fixture in 2015.
This season, four clubs are competing in the AFC Champions League. King Cup winners 2023 Al-Hilal went straight into the group stage together with Pro League champions Al-Ittihad and King Cup winners 2022 Al-Fayha. League runners-up Al-Nassr had to qualify and beat Shabab Al Ahli of Dubai to secure their place.
Of course, with the likes of Neymar, Benzema and Ronaldo featuring, Saudi’s clubs are no doubt stronger heading into this year’s competition and so it can be considered a good league. However, the squads are predominantly made up of homegrown players, a large number of whom don’t feature at international level.
Saudi Arabia does top the list when it comes to the association rankings, sitting ahead of Iran and Qatar in the west Asian region. Saudi also boasts more co-efficient points than South Korea and Japan who are in the east Asian region.
However, while Saudi clubs are dominant in Asia, for global context, only three times in the last decade has a team from the continent reached the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
Is the Saudi Pro League a Threat to the Premier League
The Saudi Pro League is certainly a threat in terms of taking players from the Premier League having already signed a number of big names.
While the likes of N’Golo Kante, Jordan Henderson and Kalidou Koulibaly are all in their thirties and entering the twilight of their careers, Ruben Neves swapped England for the Middle East at the age of just 26.
The Portugal midfielder was expected to leave Wolves but for a team in the UEFA Champions League, with Barcelona, Juventus and Arsenal all linked. The fact he has gone to Saudi as he approaches his prime suggests other players could follow suit.
In order to protect the brand as the best league in the world, the Premier League will be determined to sign the top players around the world. However, it could be that teams in England simply can’t compete financially with the Saudi clubs.
What’s more, and perhaps the main worry for Premier League clubs is that, while they must adhere to Financial Fair Play Rules, there are currently no such regulations harnessing the spending power of clubs in Saudi.
Saudi Pro League vs Premier League
When it comes to a head-to-head battle between the Saudi Pro League and the Premier League, England’s top division comes out on top in every category except when it comes to finance.
From attendances to global viewers, sponsorship and the quality of football, the Premier League leads the way.
For example, in 2022-23, the average attendance at Saudi Pro League games was 9,339 with only 284 fans attending Al-Fayha’s May victory over Al-Wehda. The Premier League average attendance was 40,000 with Bournemouth’s average attendance of 10.309 eclipsing the Saudi Pro League’s tally.
The top-flight in England has existed since 1888 and the Premier League was formed more than three decades ago while the Saudi league was founded in 1976 and so of course, English football is much more established.
So, what about money? Well, this summer, the 20 Premier League teams spent a combined £2.36billion. The most in the world. SPL clubs meanwhile spent £767m and that figure is expected to rise next year and in the future, it’s not inconceivable to think Saudi clubs will pay out more than teams in England.
Will the Saudi League Overtake the Premier League?
It is unlikely the Saudi League will overtake the Premier League anytime soon due to the top division in England being so established.
However, with Saudi Arabia pushing to host a World Cup tournament in the 2030s, a strong move would be to promote the Pro League by signing the top players in the world and they have the financial clout to challenge clubs in Europe.
Ultimately it will come down to the value of the tournament and how professionals see the game. As it stands, players will currently join for the payday but it remains to be seen how many players approaching their peak and younger would opt for a move to Saudi while giving up on playing in the UEFA Champions League or potentially a European Super League if the clubs return to the idea in future.
As the saying goes though, money talks and so Saudi Arabia could be a seriously attractive option for players over the coming years.