Patrick Burke

Another day, and another men's football global superstar has been linked to Saudi Arabia. Kylian Mbappé could well be serving as France's poster boy this time next year for the Paris 2024 Olympics. Where he will be playing his club football then remains up in the air.

The 24-year-old's achievements in the game already include a FIFA World Cup won in Russia five years ago and 212 goals for Paris Saint-Germain to make him the French giants' all-time leading goalscorer. In Qatar last year, he almost single-handedly dragged France to a defence of their World Cup, scoring eight times including a hat-trick in the final which they lost on penalties to Argentina.

He is one of football's most valuable assets, and with his relationship with PSG souring and the prospect of the Qatari-owned club losing him for free when his contract expires next year, the sport's leading players are on hot alert. Spanish giants Real Madrid are reportedly Mbappé's preferred destination, but a move to the Saudi Professional League (SPL) is now firmly in the conversation.

On Monday (July 24), Al Hilal had a world-record bid of €300 million (£259 million/$332 million) to sign Mbappé accepted by PSG. They are said to be willing to pay him €700 million (£604 million/$774 million if he accepts a one-year contract.

They are already a well-established force in Asian football, winning a joint-record four Asian Football Confederation Champions Leagues and a record 18 SPL titles.

Last month, they were one of four domestic football clubs taken over by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is controlled by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and already has a foothold in the English Premier League, the world's most-watched sports league, through its ownership of Newcastle United.

Al Hilal had targeted Argentinian Lionel Messi, considered by many the greatest ever footballer, but he opted for the United States and Inter Miami.

Still, staving off competition from a host of top European clubs for Portugal's 26-year-old midfielder Rúben Neves and 28-year-old Serbian star Sergej Milinković-Savić demonstrated the financial muscle of Al Hilal and the SPL as a whole.

Portuguese legendary goalscorer Cristiano Ronaldo has been plying his trade in Saudi Arabia since the start of the year for Al Nassr, another of the clubs recently taken over by the PIF.

French striker Karim Benzema may be 35 but is a player who has got better with age, and was another lured by SPL riches last month when he moved to PIF-owned Al-Ittihad Club.

Nations' domestic leagues trying to challenge football's European elite is of course nothing new. Previous attempts have at best enjoyed mixed success. The North American Soccer League (NASL) attracted the likes of Brazil's Pelé, The Netherlands' Johan Cruyff and Northern Ireland's George Best in the latter end of their careers, but collapsed in 1984. The Chinese Super League enjoyed a boom in the mid-2010s and subsequent bust.

French star Kylian Mbappé appears set to move from Paris Saint-Germain, and there is reported Saudi interest in one of the hottest properties in men's football ©Getty Images
French star Kylian Mbappé appears set to move from Paris Saint-Germain, and there is reported Saudi interest in one of the hottest properties in men's football ©Getty Images

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin claimed last month he was not concerned by the latest challenge, telling Dutch broadcaster NOS he believed Saudi Arabia was making "a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career" and "insisting players want to win top competitions, and top competition is in Europe".

Perhaps the Slovenian should be more worried than he has publicly declared. He certainly will be if the Mbappé bid amounts to anything.

The mind-boggling amounts of money tied to the SPL project, acquisition of players in the peak of their careers such as Neves and arguably Benzema, and an effective Saudi takeover of golf make this a more serious assault on football's powerhouses. The SPL is no retirement home, a tag previously aimed at the NASL and Chinese Super League.

Saudi officials have sought to tie the PIF's football investments and the SPL project to the Vision 2030 project, which seeks to diversify its income and reduce its reliance on oil, although it continues to be the world's leading exporter of the fossil fuel and imports of Russian fuel oil have skyrocketed in recent months because of ongoing Western sanctions due to the war in Ukraine.

Former Nigerian international and Chelsea technical director Michael Emenalo was appointed as the SPL's inaugural director of football earlier this month. He underlined the scale of the League's ambition.

"There are no exclusions. The idea is to make this League one of the best in the world, and to do that, you want the best players," Emenalo said.

"Right now, we're throwing out our nets as wide and as far as they can go, to make sure that we bring the best talent in the League."

He has also claimed Saudi ambition in football should be viewed no differently to the top European nations.

Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has been playing in Saudi Arabia for Al Nassr since the start of the year ©Getty Images
Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo has been playing in Saudi Arabia for Al Nassr since the start of the year ©Getty Images

"What Saudi football is doing, is no different from what the Premier League have done. There was a time when it was all about Italy. There was a time when it was all about Spain. What we're looking for in the industry is an opportunity to compete, and to compete on an even scale and to improve upon whatever exists in the industry," Emenalo argued.

"I think the Saudi League offers a new opportunity first and foremost for the entire industry, and I think it will create avenues for good competition and for more development of young talent.

"The world can’t have enough of good footballers, the world can’t have enough of good football, the world can’t have enough competition between rival clubs, between countries, between rival leagues."

A Saudi-led bid for the men's 2030 FIFA World Cup had long been expected if not formally declared, presumably drawing on an apparent friendly relationship between bin Salman and FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Seven years' time appears to be too early to host a sporting event rivalled only by the Olympic Games, however, given cooling interest from Egypt and Greece in serving as partners.

With the prospect of a Saudi-hosted World Cup in 2030 diminishing, a heavy focus on the domestic league has proved an alternative and quicker way to put the nation firmly on the football map.

Yet despite the talk of Vision 2030 and creating one of the world's leading football leagues in a nation where the sport is highly popular, critics suspect a more sinister motive behind Saudi Arabia's rise. The authoritarian bin Salman regime has faced vociferous accusations of attempting to "sportswash" a human rights record that has been ranked as one of the worst in the world.

Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia, women's rights are severely restricted, as is free speech, and the country has led a coalition which has carried out deadly airstrikes across Yemen since 2015.

It has also been criticised for its use of the death penalty, including the largest mass execution in its modern history on March 12 last year when 81 men were killed.

Players who joined the breakaway LIV Golf circuit - including Americans Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson and Australian Cameron Smith - were heavily scrutinised for their involvement on the Saudi-backed circuit, generally answering moral questions in an unconvincing fashion. PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan has been vilified after its shock merger with LIV last month - a major Saudi victory with PIF Governor Yasir al-Rumayyan set to chair the new entity.

LIV golfers including the United States' Phil Mickelson faced tough questions over their ties to the Saudi-backed circuit ©Getty Images
LIV golfers including the United States' Phil Mickelson faced tough questions over their ties to the Saudi-backed circuit ©Getty Images

What has been perhaps most surprising about the plethora of talented footballers who have moved to Saudi has been the muted nature of criticism towards their decisions to be part of the SPL project, at least relatively to that faced by the LIV golfers. The narrative has largely been that for individuals, a move to the League represents a life-changing opportunity that can set up themselves and their families for life.

The exception who has taken a vast majority of the flack has been Liverpool captain and England midfielder Jordan Henderson. He appears set to move to Al-Ettifaq, a club owned not by the PIF but the Saudi Ministry of Sports.

Henderson's proposed transfer has proven so controversial as he has, not undeservedly, gained a reputation as one of football's good guys. He has been a vocal supporter of the LGBT+ community, earning a nomination in the Football Ally category at the 2021 British LGBT Awards. He spoke out against Qatar's "shocking and disappointing" human rights record in the build-up to last year's World Cup.

The 33-year-old's lucrative move has not yet been finalised, but Henderson has already faced heavy criticism as a "sell out".

Liverpool's official LGBT+ fans group Kops Out wrote on Twitter: "Kop Outs have valued the allyship shown by [Henderson].

"We are appalled and concerned that anyone might consider working for a sportswashing operation for a regime where women and LGBT+ people are oppressed and that regularly tops the world death sentence table?"

Al-Ettifaq are managed by Liverpool legend and former England midfielder Steven Gerrard, who was heavily linked to the role in June. Then he seemed to rubbish the report when he said on punditry with Channel 4 "as we stand right now, I won't be taking that offer up". Then earlier this month went for a U-turn by taking that offer up. He has since praised the "fantastic support from the Government" for the SPL.

Liverpool and England's Jordan Henderson has faced criticism over a proposed move to Al-Ettifaq due to his vocal support for LGBT+ rights ©Getty Images
Liverpool and England's Jordan Henderson has faced criticism over a proposed move to Al-Ettifaq due to his vocal support for LGBT+ rights ©Getty Images

Emenalo claims he "can understand the sensibilities to something that is so new and so audacious in its ambition", but players' motivations for joining SPL clubs are not solely monetary.

"Footballers are not completely ignorant of what the industry is about. They recognise when something is happening and you have to have conversations with them. So [it is] not just the agent, you have to have conversations with the players and explain to them what the league is about," he said.

"If a lot of them are making this decision, it's not necessarily because of the economic side of the opportunity. It is also because they recognise that this is going to be something that defines their legacy. They have an opportunity to contribute to something special, and that's what every footballer is looking for.

"They're looking for a great competition and an opportunity to do something exceptional and special. And I think the League offers them that. This is why there is a spectacular interest from all around the world, and from players to join our league."

Henderson has deservedly faced warnings he risks damaging his reputation should he accept the move to Al-Ettifaq.

Footballers' motivations for moving to the SPL may be monetary or as Emenalo suggests wanting to be part of the project. They may opt for the age-old defence of sports and politics should be separate, or point to friendly relationships between Saudi Arabia and the United States as well as numerous European Governments.

Yet it is not unreasonable to ask them whether their conscience will allow them to make a move that will boost not only the SPL but also the country's profile.