Ken Early: Salah could be playing in the Saudi league next season

LIV Golf has already shown us the power of money in sport and entry to Uefa’s top club competitions would be a game changer for the ambitious Saudi Pro League

Summer 2023 was the transfer window when the Saudi Pro League became the biggest story in football.

The Saudis outspent the leagues in Italy, Germany, Spain and France, and they promise that they’re just getting started. After a decade when the centre of gravity in international football shifted towards the Middle East, the same process seems to be gathering momentum in the club game. According to Uefa President Alexander Ceferin, though, it’s actually no big deal.

“It’s not a threat, we saw a similar approach in China,” Ceferin told L’Equipe. “There are players at the end of their careers and others who aren’t ambitious enough to aspire to the ‘top’ competitions. As far as I know, Mbappe and Haaland don’t dream of Saudi Arabia. I don’t believe that the best players at the pinnacle of their careers would go to Saudi Arabia.”

Maybe not. But Mohamed Salah’s future at Liverpool is an interesting test case. Salah, at 31, is still one of the biggest stars in the Premier League, and still good enough to be a force in the Champions League, if and when Liverpool get back into it.


Liverpool have so far rejected Al-Ittihad’s bids, but their American owners must be yearning to sell. From a purely business perspective, it’s a no-brainer: if someone offers you a British record transfer fee for a 31-year old, you take it.

Rule changes for the new Champions League format that starts next season mean that they will likely only need to finish fifth in the Premier League to qualify; even without Salah, Liverpool should be capable of that. The only reason not to accept £150 million is that if the Saudis can offer that much, then they can surely offer even more.

It’s not a purely business decision, though. Besides the fact that selling Salah now would anger their manager and supporters, there is the suspicion that the Saudis may be trying to break down one of the rivals to their Premier League outpost, Newcastle. Why did they wait until the end of the window to start bidding for Salah? It’s not as though they first became aware of him when he assisted the winner at St James’ Park last week.

Such talk has been described as conspiracy theory, but the fact remains that Newcastle and Al-Ittihad are controlled by the same entity: the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Is it so far-fetched to imagine the left hand might be aware of what the right hand is doing? Are we supposed to believe that there is a Chinese wall running down the middle of PIF and Newcastle chairman Yasir al-Rumayyan’s brain?

Salah’s agent tweeted last month that “Mohamed remains committed to LFC”. That could be seen as a negotiating stance. Maybe Liverpool will resist the temptation to cash in this week, but if the Saudi interest is sustained, it seems ever more likely that by the start of next season, Salah will be playing in the Pro League.

Which, when you think about it, is remarkable, and rather sad.

Many would describe that sentiment as Eurocentric arrogance and hypocrisy. One such voice, the Doha-based broadcaster Richard Keys, blogged mockingly last week about English entitlement: “‘How dare a league come along and chuck money about, buying some of the best players in the world . . . Really? You mean like the PL has done for 30 years?”

Others have argued that since European football has for decades preyed on the economically weaker South American leagues, and the Premier League has preyed on its rival European leagues, the Premier League can hardly complain if someone even richer comes along: live by the sword, and so on.

But such arguments miss the mark. The English top flight has been one of the world’s top football competitions for nearly 150 years. Of course players move from South America to Europe, or from Europe to the Premier League for higher wages, but they also know they will be competing at the highest level of the sport.

That is not the case in the Saudi Pro League, which is in no sense a credible top-level competition.

“No one should underestimate what a hotbed of football the Middle East is,” Keys wrote last week.

And yet I remember, at half-time in the opening match of the Qatar World Cup, watching thousands of Qatari fans streaming for the exits at Al-Bayt Stadium, carrying little tote bags of Fifa merch. By the end of that match – the grand opening for which Qatar had waited 12 years! – the only big blocks of fans remaining were the hired Lebanese “Qatar ultras” behind one of the goals, and the packed Ecuador section at the other end. “Hotbed of football” was not the first phrase that came to mind.

Saudi Arabia has a much bigger population than Qatar but not many Saudis make a habit of going to Pro League matches. The average attendance is a little over 9,000 – roughly on a par with the leagues in Indonesia, China, and Poland, and well behind England’s League One.

Riyadh’s Al-Hilal – the new home of Neymar, Ruben Neves and Khalidou Koulibaly – are getting respectable crowds of nearly 37,000 this season, but that’s in a 60,000-capacity stadium, in a city of 7.5 million people. Thirteen of the 18 clubs are getting fewer than 10,000 fans per match and five are averaging fewer than 2,000. In the last round of matches, Pro League stadiums were on average 25% full.

Right now, the foreign stars in the Pro League are like the exotic animals in Michael Jackson’s garden at Neverland. They might in a sense be pampered, they might have nosebags full of candyfloss and drinking troughs full of Gatorade, but deep down they must know they shouldn’t really be here.

That could change if Saudi clubs had access to the top level of competition. The PIF’s strategy in golf hints at their playbook for football: pour in cash to disrupt the market until the “legacy” organisations cave and are forced to accept you as partners.

If Al-Ittihad could offer Champions League football, would they be any less credible a platform for the best players than, for instance, PSG? Mbappe and Haaland, cited by Ceferin as examples of the kind of players who would not move to Saudi Arabia are, of course, already playing for Gulf state-owned clubs in Europe.

Ceferin sought in his interview last week to dispel talk of allowing Saudi clubs into Uefa competitions.

“Only European clubs can participate in the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League,” he insisted. “We would have to change all our rules, and we don’t want that.”

Hearing this, it was hard not to think of the journey undertaken by PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. In summer 2022, he was invoking the suffering of the 9/11 families to deter PGA Tour players from signing on with LIV Golf.

By summer 2023, he was welcoming the PIF as the PGA Tour’s partners in the new unified entity that would control the sport of golf, with himself as CEO and – naturally – Yasir al-Rumayyan as chairman. Maybe Ceferin will turn out to be a different kind of sports administrator.