In a testament to the scope of the Saudi Pro League project, Lucas Zelarayán has been the first swayed to the Middle East.
A few weeks ago, MLS Commissioner Don Garber claimed the league was “not threatened” by the Saudi Pro League. Now, with one of the league’s stars poached, the Saudi Pro League has officially put the league on notice.
Garber, like many others, has compared the Saudi Pro League to the Chinese Super League. Those comparisons are lazy. They conveniently overlook two key factors.
The people behind the Saudi Pro League have a much broader vision than their counterparts in China. The SPL, while having signed plenty of 30-year-olds, has signed many European stars in their primes. Jota, Seko Fofana, Ruben Neves, and more. While Saudi Arabia is splashing big cash, the transfers are much more prudent, we are not seeing Saudi representatives chasing after expensive flops like Jackson Martinez or Paulinho. Instead, they are poaching high-value players with quality resumes. Players whose names are being considered by clubs around the world. In many cases, players like Jota and Neves still have room to grow and value to accrue. With MLS talent attracting Saudi interest, it’s clear their scouting network is much wider and conscious of the global market. Something that will go a long way in creating a competitive league.
While China was throwing a lot of money around, Saudi money makes the Chinese bank accounts look like a wishing well. To this point, the biggest spending Saudi clubs have been Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ettifaq. The first four are owned by the Peoples Investment Fund (PIF), a state-owned sovereign wealth fund controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Al-Ettifaq is controlled by the government’s Ministry of Sport and is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia Basic Industry Corp (SABIC), an oil giant in the country. The PIF is estimated to hold $700B, but the government and elite families also provide monetary backing. Now with Al-Fateh getting business done, acquiring notable names like Zelarayán, former Barcelona and LAFC winger Cristian Tello, and Belgian international Jason Denayer, if appears time for the SPL’s other clubs to begin reaping the benefits of its governments ambitions.
A near unlimited supply of money means the Saudi Pro League will not be running out of gas as long it’s benefactors see benefits in soccer, and sports in general.
With all that money and ambition, many more players will head to Saudi Arabia. Zelarayán was the first from MLS, but he won’t be the last.