It’s just over a year since Cristiano Ronaldo rocked world football by joining Al Nassr on a free transfer.
The move was a huge statement of intent from the Saudi Pro League and the European summer transfer window was dominated by a number of big-name players following Ronaldo to the Middle East.
The January 2024 transfer window was also notable for the Saudi Pro League. But few would have expected that we would focus so strongly on departures.
“I think a lot of people would like me to sit here and criticize the Saudi thing and everything that goes with it, but that’s certainly not the case and nothing I’m going to do,” England midfielder Jordan Henderson told reporters. after sitting out six months at Al Ettifaq to join Ajax – a move he insisted was a “footballing decision”.
“I have full respect for the league and Al Ettifaq, the club and the people there,” Henderson added. “They really welcomed me. Unfortunately sometimes these things just don’t work out in life, in football and in life in general.”
However, several reports suggest that Henderson is not the only player to change his mind, although he was the first to act according to them. Here we look at some of the other big names that could be on their way out of Saudi Arabia quickly.
Why are players trying to leave the Saudi Pro League?
It’s certainly not the case that every player who recently moved to the Saudi Pro League is looking for a way out, but there are a few high-profile stars who have various reasons to agitate for a move away, or are simply finding it difficult to settle.
Karim Benzema: French superstar denies exit rumours
Several huge deals during the close season ensured that Ronaldo was not the only show in town. Neymar, another of the era’s standout stars alongside Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, moved to Al Hilal from Paris Saint-Germain, while Karim Benzema’s move from Real Madrid to Al Ittihad ensured City had another Ballon d’Or pedigree.
However, Neymar is now sidelined with a serious knee injury which is expected to rule him out of Brazil’s Copa America campaign later in the year, and Benzema’s future has been the source of huge speculation in recent weeks.
Transfer expert Fabrizio Romano said talks between Benzema and Al Ittihad were due to take place, with the striker reportedly unhappy and returning to training late. A number of Premier League clubs and Benzema’s former team Lyon have been linked with his services on a short-term deal.
However, according to L’Equipe, the 36-year-old said: “It’s completely fake! The media don’t know what to make up anymore.” The report also credited a member of Benzema’s family for claiming the player’s absence from training was linked to transfer talks to an inaccurate degree.
A key factor differentiating Benzema’s predicament from Henderson’s swift and clean exit is that Al Ittihad is one of four clubs – along with Al Nassr, Al Hilal and Al Ahli – bankrolled by PIF, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. It is therefore natural to expect that any attempts by Benzema to engineer an exit will be met with more resistance.
Aymeric Laporte: Many players are unhappy in the Saudi Pro League
Spanish centre-back Laporte ended five-and-a-half trophy-laden seasons at Manchester City to become one of Ronaldo’s team-mates at Al Nassr.
The move at 29, when he was still regarded as one of the most talented centre-backs in Europe, despite losing his starting place at City, was likely due to a lack of other financially viable options. Plenty of clubs will admire Laporte’s elite talents but have been unable to make room for him on the wage bill.
In a recent interview with AS, the former Athletic Bilbao man gave an impression of the disillusionment you can associate with the prospect of possibly wasting the rest of his prime years.
“It’s a big change compared to Europe, but at the end of the day it’s all about adaptation,” he said. “They didn’t make it easy for us. In fact, there are many players who are unhappy.
“We’re working on it every day, we’re negotiating so to speak and we’ll see if it improves a little bit because it’s something new for them too, because they have European players who already have a long career. Maybe they’re not used to it and we have to adapt to a little more seriousness .”
Laporte added: “A lot of us also came here not just for football. A lot of us are happy with it, but I’m also looking for something that’s not the economic part and stuff like that. In terms of quality of life, I expected something different because you end up spending three hours here daily in the car. Riyadh is a waste of traffic, a waste of time in the car.”