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At the start of 2022, the powers that be in Saudi Arabian football had their eyes fixed on one of the biggest names in European football, a star forward who might be entering his post-prime years but was surely guaranteed to draw attention to the Pro League. Al-Nassr could not so much as get a reply, however, when they asked Arsenal if they could loan Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. And the player himself showed little more interest, keeping his suitors waiting until the final days of the transfer window as he scrabbled in search for any other club that might take him.

Saudi Arabian football was not being taken seriously. More than $850 million later, it certainly is. One wonders now how different the global landscape of world football might be if Cristiano Ronaldo had not torched his standing at Manchester United and beyond in a dramatic interview with Piers Morgan just before the World Cup in November. In expressing his disrespect for Erik ten Hag, Ronaldo snuffed out what lingering hopes there were for him to continue at the highest level of the European game. Having first registered their interest the previous summer, Al-Nassr swept into action at a time when no one else wanted him.

There had long been ambitions within Saudi Arabia to turn the Pro League into a destination competition. Notable names such as Anderson Talisca and Moussa Marega had been lured to the kingdom, though the bigger names were in the dugout with the likes of Leonardo Jardim and former Brazil boss Mano Menezes briefly sojourning out east. Ronaldo's arrival was a drop of nitrous on the Saudi motor. Within weeks, financing was being finalized for the billion euro offer to Lionel Messi and the biggest names of the last decade in European club football -- Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos and N'Golo Kante were among the first targets -- had been sounded out. As more and more of those players ultimately signed on the dotted line, it was perhaps no surprise that Ronaldo came to view himself as something of a herald for a new era in global sport.

"As I said six months ago - and back then everybody thought I was crazy - now it's normal to play in the Saudi league," he said earlier this week at an Al-Nassr press conference. "As an Al-Nassr player and as someone who has played there for eight months now, I knew this was going to happen. It's a privilege to change a culture not only of the country itself but also in what concerns the game. Having great players heading there is something that makes me extremely proud. 

"I was the pioneer of all that and feel very proud of it. What I want is that the Saudi league continues to evolve not only now, but also during the coming years - I'm hoping it becomes a top league."

A chaotic gold rush for the top Pro League teams

For the Saudi Pro League, the unprecedented high-speed spending of the window was built on a unique feature. At the top of the league a quartet of clubs, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr and Al-Ahli are owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. That relationship is what provided the firepower to land the staggering number of stars that the league hopes to build its success on. Beyond just finances, these four clubs had a squadron of deal makers to aid their sales pitches.

When Al-Ittihad made their last pitch to Liverpool in their attempts to sign Mohamed Salah, the 10 man delegation that led talks included representatives from PIF and the ministries of sport and tourism. For the biggest transfers the full weight of the Saudi state was aiding these clubs. This raft of negotiators also responsible for a good deal of confusion.

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According to CBS Sports sources, multiple deals were pushed through by their sovereign wealth fund owners despite resistance from the club hierarchies beneath them. The most notable of these is Jota, who was said to be available for transfer away from Al-Ittihad within two months of signing from Celtic.  

Al-Nassr, meanwhile, had their eyes on homegrown youngsters as they looked to strengthen their squad at left back, hoping to set aside one of the eight precious slots for international players for a more glamorous addition, perhaps a top tier goalkeeper with David Ospina set to spend most of the season on the sidelines. Instead, to the bafflement of the club hierarchy, they were told by PIF that Alex Telles had been procured from Manchester United. A landing spot for the Brazilian was required and it would be the Riyadh side. Luis Castro has been pleasantly surprised with what he has got from the 30 year old but his signing was not one that was particularly desired.

Through to the final days of the window there was a sense that clubs and ownership might be working at crossed purposes. Al-Ittihad wanted a center back to ready themselves for the Club World Cup, where they will be looking to become the first club from outside Europe or South America to win the tournament. PIF held talks with Sergio Ramos, who seemed close to joining before Sevilla offered him a romantic return to Andalusia. For once the club got what they wanted when Luiz Felipe arrived from Real Betis

These are perhaps the sort of luxury problems that the other 14 clubs in the Pro League would relish. Aside from the PIF four, Al-Ettifaq might be the only club who made a major impact on the market with the acquisitions of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Demarai Gray. In the final hours of the window they tried to secure the biggest coup of all, as revealed by CBS Sports, when they attempted to take Jadon Sancho on loan from Manchester United. Talks soon fell apart when the Red Devils intimated that they would not be prepared to countenance a deal that did not include a purchase obligation of $62 million and a sizeable loan fee. For a club without PIF's backing, such terms are beyond their reach. 

Some of the league's have nots were afforded financing late in the window, Al-Shabab's $21.4 million signing of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco came with financial backing from the Ministry of Sport, but as the dust settles there is a clear stratification. Indeed there is almost something Premier League-ish to the construction of a competition that has a Big Four, well run ambitious clubs such as Al-Shabab and Al-Ettifaq and many others who might just be steamrolled by Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema.

PIF's teams are stacked with stars  

Despite the chaos though, Saudi Arabia's big-four are now stacked with talent. Joining Ronaldo at Al-Nassr is reigning African Footballer of the Year Sadio Mane, Champions League holder Aymeric Laporte, Seko Fofana and Marcelo Brozovic, among others. Reigning champions Al-Ittihad have taken on more of a Francophone flavor with the recruitment of Kante and Benzema while Al-Ahli picked up big names from the Premier League including Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy and Riyad Mahrez.

It is Al-Hilal, however, who have spent the most on them, something which is already frustrating executives at other clubs in the PIF stable. Neymar was the headline addition, but he will have the starring role in an attack that includes compatriot Malcom and Aleksandar Mitrovic with Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic anchoring the midfield.

It is fair to assume that in sporting terms it will be successful. Saudi clubs had been historic forces in the Asian Champions League with Al-Hilal the most successful team in the history of the competition. They, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nassr will surely rank among the favorites to win this season's addition, (which you can follow on Paramount+). The Saudi Pro League will draw eyeballs too. The summer expenditure has drawn interest from broadcasters across the world, including Fox Sports in the USA. Dazn secured rights for the UK, Germany and Austria while Canal+ has rights in France and Africa. On Thursday, while joining his teammates with Brazil for the international break, Neymar said: "I am sure that it won't be easy to win the Saudi championship, other teams got stronger, have famous players. It will be very interesting and I am sure you will be watching." Whether this emerging competition drives viewing figures remains to be seen but clearly there are broadcasters out there who believe it might.

Why is PIF spending so much?

A league that, in the words of Neymar, might be superior to Ligue 1 has been constructed on the fly in Saudi Arabia. Why? One of the most common explanations levelled for the expenditure within the kingdom is that recruiting superstars to the league will encourage activity from youngsters, the impact of Ronaldo's presence trickling down to academies whose numbers have grown in recent years. It is also the case that playing against some of the best names in the sport, even in their twilight years, should improve Saudi Arabian talent.

However, investment in the Pro League is about much more than its impact on the population at home. Saudi money has spread across sport, a marketing project for the nation and a key tool in Vision 2030, a plan to change the image of the nation. Amnesty International have consistently noted that Saudi Arabia's "ultra-aggressive entry into the global football market is part of its wider sportswashing operation," using the attention generated by the world's most talked about cultural tentpoles to reposition a nation that has engaged in what the organization has previously referred to as a "sweeping human rights crackdown" under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Friday brought news from the Saudi Press Agency that the 100th execution of the year had taken place in the country. Last year it executed 196, the most in 30 years. Such news is often lost in the rush to assess and discuss the soft power aims of the state.

For those reporting on the events of the summer, it is hard to shake the sense that you are, in some small way, aiding this sportswashing endeavour. And yet the news value of the latest twists in the pursuit of Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Kylian Mbappe is indisputable. There are reasons that sportswashing is an appealing endeavor for nation states.

The transfers that didn't happen

Those three players in particular are why the broad consensus around the league is that the summer transfer window rates as a six or seven out of 10. The league might have added star power, but the very biggest names were the ones they found themselves unable to acquire. Mbappe can almost be discounted, a billion euro swing that Al-Hilal seemed to know was unlikely to succeed even when they took it.

The two superstars that bookended the window, however, are viewed rather differently. The failure to acquire both Messi and Salah felt like a huge blow because Saudi sources truly believed both would be secured. As CBS Sports reported at the time, even when the former was finalizing his move to Inter Miami, Al-Hilal believed he would soon join them, readying private jets to bring Messi and his father from Europe to the gulf later that day. After all a comparably wide-reaching deal to that which he signed with Apple, MLS and his new club was on offer in Riyadh. Messi had already agreed to be an ambassador for Visit Saudi, that he chose another league away from the metropole provoked a furious reaction, all the more so given it came with the implication that his family would be happier on South Beach than Saudi.

Dealmakers had dreamed of being the place to see the final skirmishes of the battle between Ronaldo and Messi. Now there is some irony in the former declaring their rivalry over at a time when they are both the figureheads of leagues who hope to snare attention from Europe's traditional powers.

According to CBS Sports sources, Messi had sat at the top of eight-strong wishlist of three of the four PIF clubs when they were asked to submit them. Al-Ahli's number one choice, intriguingly enough, was Luka Modric. Al-Hilal got their second choice in Neymar and will hope that next summer brings their third, Salah.

For a time there was a belief he would be bound for Jeddah and Al-Ittihad, who ownership were keen to furnish with the best of the best ahead of the Club World Cup in which they would participate as hosts. Ultimately Liverpool held firm and the closing of the window may well have cost Al-Ittihad their chance to get arguably the highest profile Muslim footballer in the world. PIF intend to revive their pursuit of the 32 year old next summer, though there will be a reluctance to pay a similar fee to that which they offered this summer given that Salah will be out of contract in 2025. Al-Hilal are viewed as hot favorites to get the Egyptian international if he does move next summer.

There will always be a market for such superstars in Saudi Arabia but in the years to come it may be that the deal most indicative of where the Pro League wants to head is that which took Gabri Veiga to Al-Ahli. Certainly picking up more 21 year olds considered to be one of the best prospects in their position would have an even more pronounced impact on how threatened Europe feels. This summer Saudi money has served to clean up the wage bill of Chelsea, who filled the gap with a string of young recruits, and to ease cash concerns at Serie A clubs, albeit by taking some of Italy's biggest names.

It might seem fanciful to suggest that players with their whole careers ahead of them might depart Europe's top five leagues but as recently as January of last year it appeared unimaginable that Saudi Arabia could even acquire the cast offs from big clubs. If this summer has proven anything it is that it would be wise not to underestimate the doors that can be opened with the riches of the Pro League.