European football should not be afraid of a player exodus to Saudi Arabian clubs, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said Sunday, suggesting the country was making a mistake investing in stars at the end of their careers.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have taken hundreds of millions of dollars to join Saudi Arabian clubs this year and similar offers were made to Lionel Messi and Luka Modrić. They have combined to win every Ballon d’Or awarded since 2008 and all are aged at least 35.
More players are expected to follow after four top Saudi Arabian clubs were effectively nationalized this month when taken into majority ownership by the Public Investment Fund sovereign wealth operation chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Čeferin was asked by Netherlands broadcaster NOS if he was scared of a player exodus, and answered emphatically: “No, no, no.”
“I think that it’s mainly a mistake for Saudi Arabian football,” the UEFA president said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
“Why is that a problem for them? Because they should invest in academies, they should bring coaches, and they should develop their own players.”
“The system of buying the players that almost ended their career is not the system that develops football,” he said. “It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career.”
Didier Drogba was the star recruit to the Chinese league in 2012 as clubs there bought Europe-based forwards like Nicolas Anelka and Frédéric Kanouté. The Chinese league and men’s national team have made little progress internationally in the years since.
“Tell me one player who is top, top age and who starts his career and went to play in Saudi Arabia?” Čeferin asked during the interview on the sidelines of the Nations League Finals mini-tournament hosted in the Netherlands.
“But it’s not about money only. Players want to win top competitions. And top competition is in Europe,” the UEFA leader said.
The first wave of superstars targeted by Saudi Arabia all won multiple Champions League titles in Europe. Messi won his first World Cup title with Argentina last year and is joining Inter Miami in Major League Soccer (MLS) and Modrić seems set to stay at Real Madrid for one more season.
“We didn’t lose them,” Čeferin said when asked if European football had lost top attractions. “They still play football. At the end of their career some players go somewhere to earn some money.”
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