Saudi Pro League influx leaves Barnes unconvinced of long-term growth

By Sports Desk July 23, 2023

John Barnes is unconvinced the influx of star talents into the Saudi Pro League will necessarily grow Saudi Arabian football on the world stage.

Cristiano Ronaldo's mid-season arrival at Al-Nassr after the Qatar 2022 World Cup marked the start of a dramatic influx of major players joining clubs in Saudi Arabia's top league.

Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante and Roberto Firmino are among those who have made the move to the Saudi Pro League, where lucrative contracts have tempted several high-profile players.

Liverpool legend Barnes is not sure the competition's aggressive recruitment will improve their position, pointing to the past failures of the Chinese Super League and Saudi Arabia's own strong international record.

"Football has always been big all over the world, since the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s," he told Stats Perform. "Now, because of the media attention you're looking at what's going on in Saudi Arabia.

"10 years ago, people went to China, and now they're going to Saudi Arabia. But once again, like America, just getting some retired players, or players who want to go for the money to go there may not be as good.

"It's more to make the statement of being able to attract superstar players there. That's not necessarily going to grow the league and Saudi Arabia has been doing well internationally anyway.

"They qualified for the World Cup, they were the only team to beat Argentina. Once again, that's very similar to what goes on in America.

"If ex-players or players coming towards the careers want to make a lot of money, they do that. That doesn't necessarily impact the local football."

Fellow former Liverpool player Steven Gerrard is another who has made the move to the Saudi Pro League, to manage Al-Ettifaq, while Jordan Henderson is also expected to join him there.

Henderson's reported move has led to a mixed reception on Merseyside, but Gary McAllister – another former Liverpool player – believes Gerrard should be admired for stepping out of his comfort zone.

"I think Steven was close [to] a couple of jobs in the UK, and they didn't quite land for him," he added. "There was an opportunity, and the club obviously wanted him strongly.

"He's made the decision to go and have a go. I think that's something that you've got to admire. He is going to go there, and it's going to be different, it's a new adventure for him.

"But he's back in the game, and that's what he wanted to do. He wanted to get back in the game. There weren't the avenues here or across Europe. He's made the decision, and he's gone for it."

McAllister believes Saudi Arabia will continue to push and grow its sporting portfolio, but acknowledges there is a long way to go for their football system to catch up with Europe.

"Over the past 10 years, Saudi has gone big and has been able to persuade Formula One to go there," he added. "All the big heavyweight championship bouts have been brought there.

"Obviously, what's happened recently with [LIV] golf, they want to be involved in world sport. I don't think it's going to go away, I think they'll continue to try and invest in all sports right across the board.

"[But] there's a long way to go for other countries to try and take away the power of some of the great clubs that have existed for a long time.

"The game is new in Saudi, so it'll take a long time before they can actually match what happens across Europe and in South America, and even in MLS."

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