The Saudis are coming and I fear for global football

Should prime-age players decide to swap top-level competition for Saudi cash then Europe’s biggest clubs will have a problem

Jordan Henderson in Liverpool pre-season training - The Saudis are coming and Jordan Henderson is just the start

Jordan Henderson will move to Saudi Arabia after 12 years at Liverpool Credit: Getty Images/Andrew Powell

Since Steven Gerrard moved to the Saudi Pro League and offered Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson the chance to follow him, I have been asked so many questions about their decision you would think I was joining them.

I am not their spokesperson. I speak for myself, not those I respect. But as I consider the pros and cons of their career choice I am prepared to say this: if I was offered four times my salary to leave Sky Sports and CBS in order to cover the Saudi Pro League, my answer would be no. Why? Because I love watching and analysing the best football in the world, which at the moment is the Premier League and Champions League. I could never be as enthusiastic when commentating on a league with so many players past their best, and with no history or tradition.

That is a pure footballing consideration. Naturally and understandably, the focus for many other critics is based around the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Henderson has a big problem to deal with because of his previous remarks in support of the LGBTQ+ community. I fully understand that criticism and it is justified. Jordan was heralded on the back of his speaking out so he has difficult questions to answer, and the critical reaction towards him will have a negative impact moving forward for those communities who cherish support from high profile figures.

When other footballers hear the criticism directed at him, they will not say ‘I can’t go to Saudi’. They will be told by their advisors to keep their mouth shut in case they move there in future, thus avoiding accusations of hypocrisy.

That will equate to buying silence - a grave impact of sportswashing. This is where Fifa and other sporting bodies have also been open to criticism and should have been stronger. Governing bodies have the power to say countries will not be allowed to host major sporting events unless they meet human rights requirements. You can’t preach inclusive values only to turn a blind eye when the price is right and not expect criticism.

What we are seeing in this transfer window is that Saudi Arabia poses a genuine threat to the wealth, power and quality of European football. I am worried where it will end.

For all the transfer activity, a game-changing signing has not joined the Saudi Pro League yet.

Yes, world-renowned names have made the move and more will follow. Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Ruben Neves and Roberto Firmino have joined Saudi clubs and in most cases fans are happy when those surplus to requirements get a good deal, especially if it means there is extra spending money for a replacement.

Karim Benzema unveiled by Saudi club Al Ittihad - The Saudis are coming for the Premier League and Jordan Henderson is just the start

Karim Benzema is one of this summer’s most high profile transfers to Saudi Arabia Credit: Reuters/Al Ittihad

Generally, these are stars whose time at elite, Champions League level clubs is over - or managers like Gerrard and Nuno Espirito Santo seeking to re-establish themselves as a coach and rebuild a reputation. If the Saudis were able to lure a world superstar such as Kylian Mbappe at the height of his career, it would cause an earthquake. I am relieved he has made it known he is not interested. For the greatest player in the world to sacrifice 12 months of his career for money would leave a bad taste. Going there when you are near the end of your time at the top, or out of work and given a massive salary is not comparable.

I understand why someone whose best is behind them wants to make a few quid, play under less pressure and enjoy a bit of sun on their back.

Those making the move are no different to the ageing stars who joined Major League Soccer in the United States in the mid-70s; Pele, Johan Cruyff, Bobby Moore and George Best were among them.

Others are comparing the current exodus to the Chinese Super League, which for a while tempted many illustrious names.

But the Saudi moves feel like the start of something much bigger. Such are the resources available it could lead to a rapid expansion. Younger players at a high level might eventually consider the chance to secure a £100 million contract more attractive than staying in Europe, especially if it has no impact on their international ambitions and prospects of playing at a World Cup.

When Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva was linked with a Saudi transfer, I took to social media to suggest that it really would be an eye-opener. Why? Because he is still at a level where he can play for the strongest teams in the world. That kind of deal will be the trigger for others to follow.

Look at Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrovic. He is a top Premier League striker who is willing to give up on playing in the best league in the world because of the extraordinary financial rewards.

Fulham's Aleksandar Mitrovic celebrates scoring last season - The Saudis are coming for the Premier League and Jordan Henderson is just the start

The quality of the Premier League will suffer if clubs such as Fulham cannot keep their best players Credit: Reuters/Hannah McKay

That is sad. I would be disappointed for anyone - players, managers and pundits - to put cash above quality when they still have so much to offer at the highest level.

If that keeps happening across Europe, the clubs will have a serious problem.

The long-term knock-on effect will be detrimental to the Champions League and those ‘Super League’ plotting clubs who were rebuffed by Uefa will start to look more global in order to maximise revenues. The potential is there for a destabilising impact.

Many will say it is a little premature to be pessimistic, but I do not see the current exodus being a short-term trend.

Anyone expecting a flurry of world renowned footballers or managers to declare they will never play or coach in Saudi Arabia is deluded. Most of them will be watching the coming season with interest and allowing their representatives to get a sense of the possibilities.

From a football perspective, Henderson’s Liverpool exit is no different to those who preceded him in moving to Saudi, and many of those who will follow. When you separate the emotion of his transfer from what he has achieved for the club, he leaves as a Liverpool legend. That is not a debate. It is a deal which suits the player and club. Liverpool have not stood in Henderson’s way which shows they considered it a good move financially.

The most serious consequences for the Premier League and Champions League will come when such offers are accepted by and for those in their early or mid-20s rather than early 30s.