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The Saudi Exodus: Is a new era of football beginning?

There have been several transfer windows in football history which have caused fans to question if the game is changing. But the ever-growing list of world-class players flocking to Saudi Arabia this Summer might genuinely mark the start of a new era of football for more reasons than first meet the eye.

The story of the sudden rise of the Saudi Pro League isn't a quick one. It includes the Saudi Arabian government, the Ballon d'Or, the new Club World Cup and an unlikely connection between Cristiano Ronaldo and Leicester City.

It starts, like many footballing stories of the past 20 years, with Ronaldo. When Al-Nassr announced the signing of the five-time European Champion (six including Euro 2016), Saudi Arabia had football's attention.

At the time it seemed as though it was the end of Ronaldo. But the Portuguese striker knew what he was doing. He worked it out six months before any other player. Whilst he was criticised for moving out to Saudi Arabia to essentially retire, he insisted that many other top European players would follow. Six months later, he's been proven right, and Lionel Messi has left Europe as well.

Once the Summer transfer window opened last month, Al-Nassr's rivals joined them in the European market, offering lucrative contracts to players and sizable transfer packages to clubs. Not just players on the verge of retiring either; the likes of Kalidou Koulibaily and Eduoard Mendy, still in their primes, have made the move east.

No signing made by a Saudi club so far has been quite as significant though as the signing of Karim Benzema by champions Al Ittihad. For the first time since the award was first given (to Stanley Matthews) in 1956, the Ballon d'Or will be held by a player playing outside of Europe.

The Frenchman has signed a contract worth almost £350 million, leaving his beloved Real Madrid without a first-choice striker. This begins to explain the appeal of the Saudi Pro League.

Players can claim whatever they like, but the fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabian clubs can (and will) pay more than European clubs. Ruben Neves for example, who has signed for Al Hilal, will take home approximately eight times what he was earning at Wolves. There are three reasons for this.

One is that footballers' wages aren't taxed in Saudi Arabia. Going back to the Neves example, he now earns £300,000 per week instead of £50,000. That's a six-time increase, but because the Portuguese takes home all £300,000 untaxed, he actually gets about eight times as much money compared to what he earned in the Premier League.

The second reason is simply that Saudi Arabian clubs have a lot of money. They've received backing from the government to assist in what is essentially sports washing. This is made possible by the third and most important reason; no Financial Fairplay (FFP).

FFP applies to all UEFA clubs and by and large it works. Whilst some clubs do of course spend more money than others, the overall principle is that clubs should only spend what money they make as a football club rather than simply buying players with money from the owners.

In simple terms, Win the FA Cup and use the money to sign a striker? Great, good for you. But take £50,000,000 from the owner to sign a number 10? Not so great.

There are no such restrictions in Saudi Arabia. The only authority they have to adhere to aside from FIFA is their own government. As part of a sports washing programme, the Saudi government has an initiative known as Vision 2030. This is a government-wide initiative, but in relation to football, it allows Saudi Arabian clubs to spend about $17 billion before 2030, most of it in the next four years on transfers.

So not only does the Saudi Arabian government condone their football clubs' extensive spending, but they actively encourage it, and they're the only form of leash that could've held back the Pro League clubs in the transfer market.

There has only been one small hiccup for any Saudi Arabian club this Summer, and this brings us to the Leicester City part of the story. For an unstated reason, Al-Nassr have an overdue debt to Leicester, and until they pay it, they cannot register new signings.

This may seem insignificant at first, but it remains to be seen how many other Saudi Arabian clubs will run into similar (or perhaps bigger) issues. Whilst these are professional football clubs, they are not experienced in making big-money signings, and there is a chance, albeit a small one, that the whole thing falls apart just as quickly as it began.

Fortunately for Saudi Arabia (and a few other promising non-European leagues), there are some fairly significant changes coming to world football in the next couple of years that they might just be able to capitalise on before it all comes tumbling down.

From 2025, the Club World Cup will become a Summer tournament following the format of the traditional World Cup. This will allow a total of 32 teams from all six confederations to compete for the trophy, rather than just the champions of each continent.

This will be a true test of what the Saudi Arabian teams can do against the established European and South American powerhouses. It's one thing for them to compete in the Asian Champions League against clubs from Japan & South Korea, but how would they get on against Real Madrid or Flamengo?

Well if they continue to recruit at the rate they currently are, probably better than most. Remember, the government plan for Saudi Arabian football runs until 2030, which means we could be in for a few more transfer windows with Champions League winners like Jordan Henderson and N'golo Kante leaving Europe.

And speaking of Europe, there are going to be some drastic changes to the best thing about European football; this season will be the last to feature the customary group stage format of the Champions League. From 2024, the competition will run a Swiss Model group stage, where each team plays ten group matches against opponents of varying difficulty.

All 36 (up from 32) teams will then be ranked in one big league table, with the top 8 making the last 16 and the next 16 teams competing in a play-off round. Whilst it adds more matches, it does somewhat remove the underdog factor of the Champions League that allowed Celtic to beat Barcelona 2 - 1 at Celtic Park with just 11% of possession in 2012 (any excuse to bring out that stat).

Now this new Champions League format is big news for Europe , but how exactly does this connect to Saudi Arabia? Well UEFA have shown their hand. The Swiss Model gives them more matches and therefore more money, which, despite what they might say, is at least one of the factors behind the decision.

So what's stopping them from bringing about a showdown between those who have taken the money and those who chose to stay and chase history? No a lot.

It would be wrong to finish the story without mentioning the potential deal for Kylian Mbappe. We've seen big numbers floated around Saudi Pro League transfers this Summer, but none even come close to a fraction of the Mbappe offer.

The fact that Al-Hilal offered PSG £259 million and Mbappe himself a wage package of over £700 million is ridiculous in itself, even by the standards we've seen from Saudi Arabian clubs in previous deals this Summer. It's even more ridiculous that it's for a one-year deal.

But the icing on the cake is that at the end of the deal, the Frenchman could walk after one single season. The most expensive player in the world walking out of the club just a year after becoming the world record signing, allowing him to fulfil his lifelong dream of joining Real Madrid. Of course, this suits Mbappe perfectly, but from anyone else's point of view, it's madness.

It reinforces the idea that this offer is not simply Al-Hilal bidding for Mbappe, but Saudi Arabia bidding for a seat at the European table. There is growing optimism in Saudi Arabia that they may be able to find their way into some kind of international competition with the very best clubs in the world, through the Champions League or otherwise.

But almost £1 billion for one year only to lose a player for free is a step too far... isn't it?

Whether or not the deal goes through, Al-Hilal's offer shows the serious financial muscle of the Saudi Pro League. There were whispers when the trend started in June that it may just have been the tip of the iceberg and the Mbappe offer certainly appears to prove that.

But there is, as ever, a counterargument. The two biggest signings of this transfer window so far have both been made by European clubs, with Jude Bellingham leaving Borussia Dortmund to join Real Madrid and Declan Rice moving across London from West Ham to Arsenal. These are both young players looking to play for big clubs in their prime, and they have chosen to do so in Europe.

This is natural however, because one Summer spending spree, however extreme, isn't going to bring the Saudi Pro League anywhere near the level of European football. But three or four Summers might. Seven certainly would.

For better or for worse, the Saudi Exodus is in full swing, and it's just the beginning of a global football revolution.

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