Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC6 Minute Read
When Neymar completes a €90 million ($98.2m) move to Saudi Arabia by leaving Paris Saint-Germain for Al Hilal, it will be billed as one of the biggest, most audacious transfers of the summer. But, in reality, it would not even be the biggest deal of the week. Rather, it’s just another example of a big-name player signalling the end of his career at the top level.
The biggest deal of the week is Harry Kane‘s €100m move from Tottenham to Bayern Munich and it has nothing to do with the fee, which has now been eclipsed by Moisés Caicedo‘s €133m switch from Brighton to Chelsea.
Kane’s transfer is all about ambition, both on the part of the player and his new club. The 30-year-old is desperate to win major trophies after failing to collect a single piece of silverware during his entire career at Spurs – he made his senior debut for the club in 2011 — while Bayern are aiming to consolidate their position as Germany’s dominant force and recapture the Champions League title again.
The England captain could have gone to Saudi Arabia and follow many other 30+ stars who have chosen to try something new, including Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mané, Karim Benzema and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo, and earn huge salaries at the same time, by helping the Saudi Pro League (SPL) grow at a rapid pace. But he chose a different path, perhaps because he has unfinished business in terms of winning.
The majority of the other players headed for Saudi have done so with ambitions already sated many times over. All of those mentioned above have won Champions League, some multiple times, and countless domestic honours.
Kane has made it clear his move to Bayern is motivated by a desire to win trophies and have no regrets. The others have nothing else to win, and that includes Neymar, whose trophy cabinet was well-stocked before he left Barcelona for PSG in 2017.
The two players are only a year apart in age, but Bayern never showed an interest in Neymar, a supremely-talented player, but one with an increasing number of injuries. Neymar’s peak came early, but Kane is still at his peak and maybe even still have more levels to climb.
While the 31-year-old Neymar signing for Al Hilal on wages worth a reported €120m-a-year will undoubtedly grab headlines and focus an even brighter spotlight on the SPL, it is a transfer that no major European club wanted to do themselves. Neymar’s availability has been known all summer, but no major club was prepared to invest in a player with a chequered record of fitness and focus, as well as a huge pay packet.
This is the key factor why the Saudi league remains a long way from being a threat to Europe. Right now, the money is actually helping solve countless problems for major European clubs and, according to Transfermarkt, it is now a higher value league than the Scottish Premiership.
In fact, this summer’s transfer frenzy works for everyone: Saudi Arabia, players, clubs looking to offload high-earners, and, of course, the agents taking a cut of every deal they help drive through.
PSG stand to receive a reported €90m transfer fee for Neymar, much more than anything they could expect from a European team wary of gambling too much on a superstar with a chequered fitness record. Elsewhere, Bayern Munich (Sadio Mané), Chelsea (Kalidou Koulibaly, Édouard Mendy), Manchester City (Riyad Mahrez) and Liverpool (Fabinho, Jordan Henderson) have all been able to raise significant sums for players in their 30s that they couldn’t have dreamt of receiving before the SPL’s emergence.
Sure, Liverpool didn’t want to lose midfielders Fabinho and Henderson in the same summer, but they have been able to bank over €60m for two big earners whose performances have been on the wane for some time. Ultimately, it is sound business.
ESPN reported in April that senior figures within the SPL wanted to sign up to 50 players from Europe’s major leagues this summer, and they have come close to that. Neymar will be the 30th signing from Europe’s major leagues — England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal — while several others have also arrived from Turkey, Belgium, Russia and Scotland. Within that article, it was also stated that there was a realisation that Europe remained the powerhouse and that Saudi’s ambition was to become the go-to league outside Europe’s big five.
Missing out on Lionel Messi and Sergio Busquets to Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami showed that leagues outside Europe can also compete with Saudi money and ambition, but there is no doubt that this summer has confirmed that the SPL has become a major factor in the transfer market.
But when you consider the players they haven’t signed, it puts the SPL into proper context. Kane moved to Bayern; Real Madrid signed arguably the most sought-after youngster in the game in Jude Bellingham for an initial €103m from Borussia Dortmund and, despite Al-Hilal making a world-record €300m move for PSG forward Kylian Mbappé, the 24-year-old made it clear that he still has unfinished business in Europe before considering a move to the Middle East, despite the deal only being a one-year contract.
The best players, those with ambitions to win major honours such as the Champions League, are interested only in playing in Europe; Saudi Arabia is still nowhere near being on the radar of the top stars.
The game-changing moment for the SPL will be when one of the clubs are able to sign a player in his prime and beat a top European team to his signature. But that hasn’t happened yet and there is no sign of it happening in the near future. Yes, Neymar is one of football’s biggest names, but his star has already shone brightly and is now in danger of burning out.