Mohamed Salah is arguably the most prominent Muslim footballer in the world. When he retires, he will be remembered as the best player of all time from the Middle East and North Africa. For the Saudi league, that would make him an incredibly tempting target.
So says the Asian Football Confederation’s Saudi head of marketing Hafez Al-Medlej, who spoke to Spanish outlet AS this week about the upstart league and sportwashing project’s ongoing efforts to woo big name but mostly aging stars from Europe this summer.
“We must also start working on the signing of Mohamed Salah,” Al-Medlej said. “He is overwhelmingly popular in the Arab world and in Europe. I think Salah still has records to break with Liverpool, so I hope that if he doesn’t come now he will in the future.”
Any hint of a suggestion Salah could be on his way to Saudi this summer has found itself quickly rubbished and a sudden departure seems impossible, but if the league is still willing to pay inflated fees and wages in two or three years then one couldn’t rule it out.
Whether the Saudi league—and the government’s willingness to invest in the sportswashing project at least in part to show FIFA they deserve to host a World Cup—will have the stamina that similar efforts in China and Russia lacked, though, is another question.
“We do not hire players who are already finished,” Al-Medlej insisted of the Saudi project. “Al Hilal is going to sign Rubén Neves, who is 26 years old and who Barcelona wanted. And Benzema has already arrived at Al Ittihad after being crowned the Ballon d’Or.”
There have been no reliable suggestions Barcelona actually wanted Neves, and his move at 26 to the Saudi league appears to be the result of a lack of interest from any club with a standing especially higher than that of Wolves, where he has spent six seasons.
The Saudi league’s efforts to sign 30-year-old Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace—efforts that based on the latest reports appear to have failed—similarly seemed to target a player who had publicly been chasing and failing to get a move to a larger club for years.
For Benzema, that he won the Ballon d’Or does suggest he might well not be finished as a top player at 35, but regardless he was a player looking at a last big payday. Turning down wages at least ten times what he was on at Real Madrid will have been difficult.
Statements from the likes of Al-Medlej insisting Saudi’s sportwashing project will continue to be funded for as long as it takes for the league to establish itself as a true international presence are easy. Actually doing so for three, five, or ten-plus years is harder.