Time to complain about footballers who are after Saudi blood money

Growing up as a young Southampton fan in the 1970s and 1980s, like many smaller clubs at the time, we signed star players for us when they were past their prime.

The most famous signing was Kevin Keegan, who had left Liverpool to join Hamburg before settling on my humble south coast team on his return to this shore. Before that, I was able to see former Arsenal legend Charlie George, now with a perm, score a half-volley for us from outside the box. Former World Cup 1966 heroes Alan Ball, Peter Osgood, Mick Mills and Jimmy Case also wore the red and white striped shirt.

All of these players had stellar careers at other clubs before choosing Saints as their price dropped with age to a level we could afford.

Nowadays they would be out to make mega dollars in Saudi Arabia.

Read more: Andy Murray shows true class as he rejects Saudi millions

Similarly, players like Mark Hateley, Paul Gascoigne and Chris Sutton made successful moves north of the border in the 1990s that would not happen today either. That’s because today’s peers — like Jordan Henderson, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez and Roberto Firmino — are all grabbing the Saudi riyal for one last payday as the curtain falls on their careers.

Henderson has been ridiculed for signing for Al-Ettifaq despite using his platform as Liverpool captain to campaign for LGBTQ+ rights. He is now paid £700,000 a week for playing in a country where same-sex relationships are illegal and punishable by death.

I have no idea how he reconciles that with what he said to Liverpool fans on matchday programming two years ago, when he said: ‘I think when you see something that’s clearly wrong and it makes another person feel there is to be excluded, one should stand shoulder to shoulder.” stand by them.”

As if to highlight his hypocrisy, Henderson’s new club took an online picture of him in black and white to hide the fact that he wore a rainbow armband during a Liverpool game.

It’s not just the older players who aren’t signing for Scottish teams like they used to be, some of the younger ones are also leaving.

Celtic’s Portuguese star Jota, who is just 24, is making the move to Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad despite the prospect of Champions League football next season. And Scottish defender Jack Hendry joins Steven Gerrard at Al-Ettifaq.

The assault on European leagues began in January when Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Al Nassr, followed by a move from Real Madrid star Karim Benzema to Al-Ittihad in the summer.

In June, four of Saudi Arabia’s top clubs – Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli – were acquired by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, which includes Newcastle United.

The football spending spree they started is part of a massive £5 billion sports investment by the Riyadh regime since 2021 to distract from its horrific human rights abuses. As well as football, millions of pounds have also been poured into boxing, golf, motorsport and tennis.

Unlike in Europe, Saudi clubs are not bound by the Financial Fair Play Regulations (FFP) and can therefore spend as much as they like to attract talent.


Due to their recent surge, the Saudi Pro League is now valued at £435m meaning they have overtaken the SPL at £267m. There is still a long way to go before it reaches the big European leagues, but the letter of intent is there.

As with the Gulf, the Saudis want to use their financial clout to buy themselves a place at the top of the world’s top football leagues.

The average UK fan obviously won’t benefit from this as we don’t watch our football in the Middle East. However, financial competition will drive up player salaries, which in turn will result in fans paying more at home at the turnstiles and in television subscriptions.

We will also be denied the chance to see yesterday’s stars that I saw as a boy, as will the fans in France, Spain and Italy.

Players who choose the Saudi project are mercenaries, turning their backs on their fans and the leagues that got them there. Nobody cares about the Saudi Pro League so we don’t pretend they’re in for any reason other than money.

They are also helping to prop up a discredited regime that jails women’s rights activists and the LGBTQ+ community, executes dissident journalists and political opponents and, for eight years, took a neighboring state, Yemen, back to the Middle Ages in a bloody conflict that cost nearly 400,000 lives.

We are still waiting for the first athlete – whatever sport chooses to use the Saudi riyal – to speak out on the atrocities of the regime that pays him.

Some have said why they are not going, such as Rory McIlroy and Andy Murray, both of whom took the stance, “It’s about human rights, idiot.”

But the silence of footballers leaving in droves is deafening as they quietly tarnish Saudi Arabia’s bad reputation.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail

Grace Reader

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