RIYADH: Brazilian superstar Neymar was greeted by thousands of adoring fans at Al-Hilal on Saturday as he became the latest world-famous footballer to join the big-spending Saudi Pro League. Flame-throwers and a volley of fireworks lit up the Riyadh sky as the flamboyant forward appeared in Al-Hilal’s blue kit at Riyadh’s 68,000-capacity King Fahd International Stadium.
The 31-year-old, who became the world’s most expensive footballer in when he joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, waved and smiled to the crowd as a drone display spelled “Neymar is blue” above the venue. After his unveiling, along with fellow new signings Malcolm and Yassine Bounou, the stadium lights came on and the Muslim call to prayer rang out over the loudspeakers. Excitement has been high for Neymar, who joins a string of huge names approaching the twilight of their careers to be lured by oil-rich Saudi’s giant contracts.
Neymar joined Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain from Barcelona six years ago for a world-record fee of 222 million euros ($242 million), scoring 118 goals in 173 matches despite a series of injuries. He will earn 100 million euros a season in Saudi Arabia, according to a source close to the negotiations, while PSG will pocket 100 million euros in the deal. Neymar will sit out Al Hilal’s game against Al-Fayha later on Saturday, and is expected to make his debut at Al-Raed on Thursday.
Cristiano Ronaldo set the Saudi Pro League’s plans in motion when he joined Al-Nassr in January in a two-and-a-half-year deal said to be worth 400 million euros. It opened the floodgates for a jaw-dropping summer transfer window when the previously unheralded Saudi league snapped up some of the biggest names in the sport. Real Madrid superstar Karim Benzema was a gala signing for Al-Ittihad in June, followed by Riyadh Mahrez, Sadio Mane, N’Golo Kante, Roberto Firmino and Jordan Henderson.
Al-Hilal are the second biggest spending club worldwide in the current transfer window, trailing only Chelsea, and four Saudi teams—Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad—have splashed out nearly more than 560 million euros between them, according to website Transfermarkt.com. The four clubs are owned by the Public Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth vehicle, which has been snapping up assets as part of an aggressive drive to diversify the economy of the world’s biggest oil exporter.
Two global superstars resisted the Saudi advances: Lionel Messi, who opted for Inter Miami, and his former PSG team-mate Kylian Mbappe, who reportedly refused to meet Al-Hilal officials. Off the field, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard joined Al-Ettifaq as coach, ex-Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo became the Saudi league’s director of football and Roma boss Jose Mourinho joined the board of Saudi’s Mahd Sports Academy.
The buying spree has understandably caught the attention of other leagues, with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp expressing concern that the Saudi transfer window closes on September 20 — three weeks after Europe. Al-Hilal are coached by Portugal’s Jorge Jesus, who is in his second spell at the club, while the squad has five internationals recently lured from Europe—Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Kalidou Koulibaly, Malcom and Bounou. Al-Hilal, nicknamed “The Boss”, are Saudi Arabia’s most successful team and have won the Asian Champions League a record four times. – AFP