It’s a little over a year since Cristiano Ronaldo sent shockwaves through world football by joining Al Nassr on a free transfer.
The move was a huge statement of intent by the Saudi Pro League and the European summer transfer window was dominated by a succession of big-name players following Ronaldo to the Middle East.
The January transfer window of 2024 has also been a notable one for the Saudi Pro League. But not many people would have expected the focus to be so heavily on departures.
“I think a lot of people would like me to sit here and criticise the Saudi thing and everything that went with that but that certainly wasn’t the case and not something that I’m going to do,” England midfielder Jordan Henderson told reporters after calling time on his stint at Al Ettifaq after half a season to join Ajax — a move he insisted was a “football decision”.
“I’ve got full respect for the league and Al Ettifaq the club and the people over there,” Henderson added. “They really made me feel welcome. Unfortunately, sometimes these things in life just don’t work out, in football and life in general.”
However, multiple reports suggest Henderson is not the only player to have had second thoughts, even if he was the first to act upon them. Here, we have a look at some of the other big names that might be making a swift exit from Saudi Arabia.
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Why are players trying to leave Saudi Pro League?
It’s certainly not the case that every player to make a recent move to the Saudi Pro League is looking for a way out, but there are several high-profile stars who have different reasons for agitating for an exit, or have simply found it difficult to settle.
Jordan Henderson: Ajax move down to ‘football’
Henderson became the first high-profile player to leave Saudi Arabia after joining from Liverpool in the summer transfer window of 2023.
Given the criticism the England midfielder faced for making a move to a country with strict laws against homosexuality — Henderson has been an ardent supporter of the footballing LGBTQ+ community — it was quite the climb-down for the 33-year-old to seek a move away after barely six months in the country.
In the end, Henderson signed for Ajax after he and Al Ettifaq, coached by former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, mutually agreed to terminate his contract. Henderson reportedly waived a fortune in wages in order to leave and stressed his decision to return to Europe was purely a footballing one, rather than being motivated by a struggle to adapt to life at a team with an average home crowd surpassed by clubs in England’s third division.
Karim Benzema: France superstar denies exit rumours
A couple of huge deals over the close season ensured Ronaldo was not going to be the only show in town. Neymar, another of the standout stars of the era alongside Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, moved to Al Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain, while Karim Benzema’s switch from Real Madrid to Al Ittihad ensured there was further Ballon d’Or pedigree in town.
However, Neymar is now sidelined by a serious knee injury that is expected to rule him out of Brazil’s Copa America campaign later in the year, and Benzema’s future has become a source of huge speculation over the past few weeks.
Transfer expert Fabrizio Romano said conversations between Benzema and Al Ittihad were set to take place, with the forward purportedly unhappy and having made a late return to training. A host of Premier League clubs and Benzema’s former side Lyon have all been linked with his services on a short-term deal.
🚨🟡⚫️ Understand more meetings will take place soon to discuss the future of Karim Benzema.
The situation remains tense with Al Ittihad.
🇸🇦 SPL bosses still want KB to stay in Saudi, even to join another Saudi club.
Return to Europe can only be possible with huge salary cut. pic.twitter.com/3hklAs8wOt
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) January 21, 2024
However, the 36-year-old was quoted by L’Equipe as saying: “This is completely false! The media no longer knows what to invent.” Within the report, a member of Benzema’s family was also credited with claiming the player’s absence from training had been conflated with transfer talk to an inaccurate degree.
A key factor that distinguishes Benzema’s predicament from Henderson’s quick, clean exit is that Al Ittihad are one of four clubs — along with Al Nassr, Al Hilal and Al Ahli — bankrolled by PIF, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Therefore, it is only natural to expect that any attempts by Benzema to manufacture an exit would be met with greater resistance.
Aymeric Laporte: Many players are discontented in Saudi Pro League
Spain centre-back Laporte ended five and a half trophy-laden seasons at Manchester City to become one of Ronaldo’s marquee teammates at Al Nassr.
Making the move at 29 when still considered one of the most talented central defenders in Europe, despite losing his starting place at City, was arguably down to a lack of other financially viable options. Plenty of clubs will have admired Laporte’s elite talents but could not make room for them on their wage bills.
In a recent interview with AS, the former Athletic Bilbao man gave an impression of the disenchantment you might associate with the prospect of arguably wasting the remaining years of your prime.
“It is a big change compared to Europe, but in the end it is all about adaptation,” he said. “They have not made it easy for us. In fact, there are many players that are discontented.
“We are working on it every day, negotiating so to speak, and to see if it improves a little because this is something new for them, too, having European players who already have a long career. Maybe they are not used to this and have to adapt to a little more seriousness.”
Laporte added: “Many of us have also come here not only for football. Many of us are happy with that, but I am also looking for something that is not the economic part and such. In terms of quality of life, I expected something different because in the end here you spend three hours a day in the car. Riyadh is a waste of traffic, of time wasted in the car.”
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Cristiano Ronaldo: Saudi Pro League is better than Ligue 1
The Saudi league’s powerbrokers can breathe easy when it comes to their main man.
Speaking at the Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai, Ronaldo said the Saudi Pro League had already surpassed France’s Ligue 1 — home to Paris Saint-Germain and considered one of Europe’s ‘big five’ divisions —- in terms of quality and competitiveness.
“To be honest, I think the Saudi league is not worse than the French league, in my opinion. In the French league, I think you have two or three teams who are a good level. In Saudi, I think it is more competitive,” he said.
“They can say whatever they want. It is just opinion. I have played here for one year so I know what I am talking about. But, I think right now we are better than the French league.”
Fancy a nice, gentle step down to Lyon then, Karim? It should be added that Ronaldo has never played in France and that his great rival Messi spent a couple of years at PSG. But who are we to question his motives?
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