It Sure Seems Like the Saudi Pro League is Looking to Splurge on Aging Soccer Stars
Lionel Messi isn't the only big name linked to the league
Lionel Messi might be the biggest name associated with a potential move to Saudi Arabia next season to play in the Roshn Saudi League — but he’s far from the only prominent player with rumors linking him to the league in question. Hugo Lloris, goalkeeper and captain for Tottenham Hotspur and captain of the French team that won the 2018 World Cup, has been the subject of rumors suggesting that he could make an absurd amount of money if he leaves Europe next season.
Until recently, the Saudi Pro League had primarily been associated with domestic players, along with some international players who’s previously plied their trade in Europe or MLS. Then Al-Nassr signed Cristiano Ronaldo, reportedly paying him $210 million annually. In an insightful article for The Athletic, Dan Sheldon looked at some of the big names rumored to be following Ronaldo’s lead — and analyzing what it might mean for soccer on a global level.
As Sheldon points out, the Saudi Pro League doesn’t have the financial constraints of the Financial Fair Play rules that apply to spending by European leagues, and they seem wildly unlikely to impose MLS-style salary caps. If you’re an aging superstar in search of a massive payday, there’s one league that can offer that on an exponentially greater level than virtually anyone else.
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There are benefits for the Saudi Pro League in bringing in big names as well, from league broadcast rights to potentially raising the level of national team players who compete in the league. But bringing in superstars raises another question: are they going there to play, or simply to collect a paycheck? The perception of being a “retirement league” can do more harm than good — and it’s something that MLS continues to deal with, much to the frustration of both the league and many of its observers.
The summer transfer window isn’t far from opening — and Messi will especially be one to watch. It’s not hard to imagine that him deciding that a move to Saudi Arabia is worth his time could cause others to follow his lead. That, in turn, could represent a huge shift for the global game — or a temporary disruption to the status quo. A superstar-heavy strategy wasn’t sustainable for the old NASL or the Chinese Super League, after all.
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