Saudi Pro League is set to bite chunks out of top competitions with Premier League first in line… but it’s not all bad

THE Saudi Pro League may currently resemble a retirement earner for notable footballers — but don’t be complacent about its motives.

Behind it lurks a different animal. One that could bite chunks out of successful European competitions, our Premier League first in line.

Ruben Neves bucked the current trend by leaving for Al-Hilal when still at his peak and he reckons the Saudi Pro League could be huge within two yearsGetty

AFPAgeing legends like Neymar could be laughing all the way to the bank[/caption]

The Saudis have been ruthless in tempting star golfers away from the PGA Tour.  

Within three years, their LIV Golf series has filleted the all-powerful PGA of stars including Jon Rahm, Paul Casey and five-time Major winner Brooks Koepka.

The billions required comes from the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund which recently bought 80 per cent of Newcastle United.

Persuading the Saudi population to watch fading football stars  seems in some towns about as popular as camel-racing — there are fans but not in great numbers.  I predict that progress will accelerate, quickly.

Once it was something of a  speciality among men and a taboo among women. Now? Attendance figures bottom at 133, more the number you might expect of, say, West Allotment Celtic of the Northern Football League here.

But on the positive side, the average crowd is growing — over 8,000 and the all-time highest 59,600.

Oil barons are not noted for financial surrender and quitting the  soccer project will not  happen.

It will surely far outlast the China bid to take over major clubs in the UK. Three of the four have quit.

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Only one, at Wolves, has lasted more than a few years. So, the retirement plan for Cristiano Ronaldo and like-minded beneficiaries is going to continue drawing in fellow internationals of the standing of Neymar, Fabinho and Karim Benzema — who doesn’t like the money-no-object scene and neither did Jordan Henderson.

No matter, plenty of others are queuing.

As far as European standards are concerned, many of the tempted two dozen were close to being put out to grass.

Not all. Ex-Wolves’ captain Ruben Neves, 26, chose to move to Al-Hilal. A £47million fee eased his former club’s Financial Fair Play figures, leaving time for the Portuguese to return eventually to Europe.

He isn’t sure he will move back. Where else could he earn £300,000 a week?  He says: “I don’t plan to do it soon. Saudi Arabia could have one of the most important leagues in the world within two years.

“The quality of the players who arrive is very high. If each team goes for eight foreigners of that level, this almost becomes a PlayStation championship, in which we can choose the players as we wish.”

This is strong testimony for the groundwork put in by the planners who are on track to host the 2034  World Cup in  Saudi.

They have already captured the staging of the Italian and Spanish Super Cups and host top sports events — including track-and-field athletics, tennis and horse racing, including the £16m Saudi Cup.

But a major football league would be an impressive coup for Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s advance into the modern era.

Money is no object and in a country of 27million people, football reaches places no other sport can.

Its wealth will continue to attract excellent players, young as well as older,  bigger crowds and a growing challenge to the wealth and attraction of the Premier League and equivalents elsewhere.

There is a temptation to regard the Saudi version as an enemy. It isn’t.

But it is a rival with benefits —  excellent pay for players, good conditions for spectators, involvement of more women spectators and women players, too.

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