Premier League clubs fear 10-year Saudi splurge will rocket player wages and distort football market

Karim Benzema joins Al-Ittihad

Karim Benzema, pictured at his unveiling by Al-Ittihad, is one of the highest-profile Saudi Pro League signings – AP

Premier League clubs are bracing themselves for a decade of lavish spending by the ultra-ambitious Saudi Pro League (SPL), Telegraph Sport understands.

England’s top flight clubs are working on the understanding that the Saudis have enough money to keep hoovering up talent from across Europe for the next 10 years as they bid to transform the football landscape and avoid a similar fate to the Chinese Super League, it has emerged.

Backed by the £600 billion Public Investment Fund, which owns Newcastle United and four of the nation’s biggest clubs – Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad – the Saudis want the SPL to become one of the top-10 leagues in the world as part of its Vision 2030.

They have already succeeded in enticing the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema and have been trying to lure Kylian Mbappe after Al-Hilal made an extraordinary £259 million bid for the France superstar amid his bitter stand-off with Paris St-Germain.

Cristiano Ronaldo gives the thumbs up as he is unveiled by Saudi Arabia's Al-Nassr

Cristiano Ronaldo gives the thumbs up as he joins Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr – Getty Images/Mohammed Saad

In the main, the Saudi clubs have been targeting high-profile names in the twilight of their playing careers and, for as long as that remains the case, executives at Premier League clubs have indicated they feel the SPL will predominantly be operating in a different market.

But there is understood to be concern among a growing legion of leading European clubs about the impact the Saudi gold rush could have on contract negotiations on the continent as players become increasingly empowered.

While Mbappe, 24, has given little indication that he would be willing to move to Al-Hilal, with the striker thought to be targeting a transfer to Real Madrid, well-placed sources have suggested there could be ramifications for Europe’s top leagues if the SPL attempt to pick off more and more players in their prime.

Transfer fees and wages have continued to soar in recent years and sources say there are worries about the inflationary pressures the SPL’s largesse could have as top players are tempted with ever more lucrative contract offers.

The SPL believe they are here to stay and the prospect of a decade of heavy investment could see the league grow exponentially, even if comparisons will inevitably be made with the Chinese Super League.

Huge money was thrown at transfer fees and wages there from 2016, with the country’s president Xi Jinping declaring an ambition to turn China into a “football powerhouse”, but such investment ultimately proved unsustainable and the league has run into real problems in the last few years.

The SPL are determined things will be different in Saudi and have wasted no time flexing their muscles.

Ronaldo, 38, joined Al-Nassr in a deal reportedly worth £175 million a year in December, just weeks after his ugly exit at Manchester United, and it has led to a host of household names following suit over the ensuing seven months.

Although Argentina legend Lionel Messi turned down Saudi to join Inter Milan in the MLS in the US, Benzema, 35, left Real Madrid for Al-Ittihad in a reputed £100-million-a-year deal.

Riyad Mahrez, 32, quit Manchester City barely a month after winning the Treble to join Al-Ahli, who have also signed Roberto Firmino, 31, following the Brazil striker’s departure from Liverpool.

Firmino’s former Liverpool team-mate Jordan Henderson, 33, has also moved to Saudi this summer by joining Al-Ettifaq, who are managed by Steven Gerrard, and was followed by Fabinho who left Anfield for Al-Ittihad.

Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson at Al-Ettifaq

Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson also look very happy to have joined a Saudi club – Reuters

More encouragingly for Premier League sides, the SPL has provided an outlet in which to sell big earning outcasts they may otherwise have struggled to shift or attract substantial fees for. Chelsea, certainly, have made the most of the new market opening up in the Middle East by shipping three players to Saudi clubs.

Al-Ahli agreed a £16 million deal with Chelsea for goalkeeper Edouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly has moved to Al-Hilal for £34 million. N’Golo Kante, 32, joined Al-Ittihad after leaving Chelsea as a free agent last month on a deal reportedly worth up to £86 million a year.

Managers have been watching developments in Saudi with interest but Erik ten Hag does not see the SPL impacting on the appeal of the Premier League to players.

“There is some money over there and it attracts players,” the Manchester United manager said. “In Europe, it has an effect.

“But I don’t see it in this moment as a problem for the Premier League because this is where the big players want to play. And that does not put it in competition with leagues like America or Saudi Arabia.”

By contrast, Pep Guardiola, the City manager, and his Liverpool counterpart Jurgen Klopp believe the Saudi cash has already changed the market.

“It is not about a threat, it is a reality,” Guardiola said. “They want to create a strong league and so far they are the league who can do it. The Premier League spent more than the other because the organisation is better and the broadcast (revenues) are higher. Right now with the Saudi league, I don’t know how long they will sustain that. But the players want to take this experience and play in that league. Saudi Arabia has changed the market.”

Klopp echoed Guardiola’s sentiments and added that it was not helped the Saudi transfer window does not close until three weeks after Europe’s top leagues.

“It is massive, in the moment,” said the Liverpool manager on Saudi Arabia’s influence. “Pretty much the worst thing I think is that the transfer window in Saudi Arabia is open three weeks longer. If I am right, I heard something like that, then at least in Europe that’s not helpful.

“Uefa or Fifa must find solutions for that. But in the end, at this moment, I don’t know exactly what will happen.”

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