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Ronaldo And The Stars Signing Up For Saudi’s Football Project

Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in January to play for Riyadh-based Al-Nassr is what first drew global attention to ongoing efforts to boost the Saudi Pro League.

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Christian Ronaldo

Saudi Arabia has emerged as a force in the football transfer market this year, offering eye-watering salaries that have lured a host of big names to the oil-rich Gulf kingdom.

Here, AFP Sport takes a look at some of the biggest names to make the move:

The stars

Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival in January to play for Riyadh-based Al-Nassr is what first drew global attention to ongoing efforts to boost the Saudi Pro League.

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He was followed by his former Real Madrid teammate Karim Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner who signed a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad in June.

Just a few days later, fellow Frenchman N’Golo Kante joined the same Jeddah-based club, also on a three-year deal.

The veteran and member of France’s victorious 2018 World Cup squad will form a partnership with Brazilian Fabinho, arriving from Liverpool, in midfield.

Still buzzing from his historic FA Cup semi-final hat-trick for Manchester City in April, Algeria captain Riyad Mahrez has signed for four years with Jeddah-based Al-Ahli, a transfer estimated at 35 million euros.

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The latest coup for the Saudis is Sadio Mane, the Sengalese star who signed with Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr for a reported annual salary of 40 million euros plus 10 million euros in results-based bonuses.

Past their prime 

Along with top-tier stars, several other big names in the sport are starting new chapters in Saudi Arabia.

Marcelo Brozovic, who captained Inter Milan in last season’s Champions League final, has signed a three-year deal with Al-Nassr, who reportedly paid a transfer fee of 18 million euros.

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Ex-Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has joined Al-Ettifaq until 2026, drawing heavy criticism given his past support for the LGBTQ community and the fact that Saudi Arabia outlaws homosexuality.

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Another former Liverpool star, Brazilian international Roberto Firmino, left the team after eight seasons for Al-Ahli, who have also landed Edouard Mendy of Senegal.

Kalidou Koulibaly, for his part, bade farewell to Stamford Bridge for Al-Hilal for a reported transfer fee of 23 million euros.

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Rising talent

It is not just fading stars who are making the trip to the Gulf.

The 28-year-old Ivorian midfielder Seko Fofana has also joined Ronaldo at Al-Nassr, leaving French outfit Lens as they prepare to return to the Champions League.

After eight years with Lazio, Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, also 28, has inked a three-year deal with Al-Hilal.

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He will be joined by 26-year-old Ruben Neves, the Portuguese star who was previously tipped for a move to Barcelona.

Another 26-year-old, Frenchman Allan Saint-Maximin, has joined Al-Ahli from Newcastle, which is 80-percent owned by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund.

The coaches

The Saudi Pro League has also drawn renowned coaches.

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Dismissed by Aston Villa in October, iconic former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard signed with Al-Ettifaq until 2025, and a clip of him introducing himself in halting Arabic has gone viral on social media.

Former Croatia and West Ham boss Slaven Bilic will join the Al-Fateh bench.

After leaving Fenerbahce in June, former Benfica coach Jorge Jesus has returned to Al-Hilal, where he worked in 2018-2019.

And in late July, Al-Ahli named 35-year-old German Matthias Jaissle, regarded as one of the most promising managers of his generation, as their new coach.

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