The path that Cristiano Ronaldo forged this summer could get increasingly well-worn over the months ahead. Karim Benzema is set to follow in his footsteps and is expected to land at the reigning champions of Saudi Arabia, Al-Ittihad, having snubbed the chance to stay at Real Madrid. His official departure from Real Madrid was announced on Sunday.
and though they expressed optimism to get their man at the time it seemed something of a long shot to neutral observers. After all, only nine months ago Benzema, with the Ballon d'Or in hand, reaffirmed his desire to retire a Madridista.
"There is no other option," he said.
It is amazing what new possibilities can be unveiled with a base salary in excess of €100 million.
Benzema may well not be alone when the new season kicks off on August 11. Al-Nassr hope to pair Cristiano Ronaldo with N'Golo Kante, whose status at Chelsea is not as certain as it appeared only a few months ago when the Blues were close to agreeing new terms. Since then, the French international has been made aware of a compelling offer from the kingdom and talks over an extension at Stamford Bridge appear to have gone cold. Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have been linked while Al-Khaleej's win over Abha on the final day of the season could bring with it the additional reward of Alexis Sanchez moving from Marseille to Saihat.
Then there is the great white whale of Lionel Messi, still mulling his options as he prepares to depart Paris Saint-Germain but withwhere he would likely land at Al-Hilal. One of the leading rivals for his signature, Barcelona, are so strapped for cash that they do not even know if they will be able to offer him a contract.
Those who make the move to Saudi Arabia will have questions to answer. When Ronaldo arrived in Riyadh in January, Amnesty International warned, "it is highly likely that the Saudi authorities will promote Ronaldo's presence in the country as a means of distracting from the country's appalling human rights record. Instead of offering uncritical praise of Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo should use his considerable public platform to draw attention to human rights issues in the country."
He has not done so. The presence of one of the most high-profile footballers ever has been a major boost to the league, his matches sold out well in advance and drawing interest from broadcasters around the world.
There is, of course, nothing new about an arriviste league parking its tanks on the lawns of European football and firing €500 notes in the direction of the best and brightest. For the Saudi Pro League, one could easily read the Chinese Super League, the Russian Premier League in the age of Anzhi Makhachkala or even the North American Soccer League (NASL) of Pele, Eusebio and Johan Cruyff. For a time these competitions seemed to pose an existential threat to the European order. Within a few years, they were in retreat, victims either of speculative investment drying up or of the political whims.
There is nothing that necessarily means that Saudi Arabia should be any different. At the moment they are merely hoovering up this generation's Peles and Eusebios. Indeed one might contend that they only got Ronaldo because his time at Juventus and Manchester United had turned him into such damaged goods that no other clubs would touch him. Benzema might not have proven to be such a poisonous figure in locker rooms but how many of Europe's elite clubs would have been hankering to offer big money to a player who turns 36 this year? This is an age where a premium is placed on youth rather than experience. The Pro League is merely one of the last competitions standing that is prepared to pay veterans what they think they deserve.
And yet there is something rather more assertive about the Saudi approach. The Chinese Super League's great snares were Oscar and Hulk, Russia also picked up the latter Brazilian star along with Axel Witsel and Malcom. There were players of great talent who made the move east but none who were the holder of the Ballon d'Or, nor indeed, in Messi, the odds-on favorite to win the next edition. Benzema might not have been the same force that he was when he willed Madrid to Champions League glory a year ago, he might have to pick and choose his moments, but he is still one of the most feared attackers in the global game. Those players do not up sticks and abandon Europe all that often.
Sources in Saudi Arabia insist this will not be the same flash in the pan rise and fall of a league as occurred in China, where worries over the flow of money out of the country rather than into the national team convinced the Chinese Communist Party to curb the expenditure of the mid-2010s. They would naturally say that but equally, the Pro League has been bubbling away as an attractive league for a certain class of footballer -- the Vincent Aboubakars and Ever Banegas of the world -- for rather longer than the Chinese Super League did before its big bang moment. The Saudi national team have qualified for six of the last eight World Cups and though Herve Renard's side did not escape the group stages in Qatar they did claim an almighty scalp in victory over Argentina. The performances of Hassan Al-Tambakti and Salem Al-Dawsari pointed to homegrown quality in the league.
League sources hope to supplement it with veterans chasing their last paycheck at first followed by stars in their prime, setting a timescale of two to three years when players will view the Saudi Pro League as a place to play when they are at their best. There is a realistic view that the competition will never match the sway or global reach of the Premier League -- no great problem for Saudi Arabia when the Public Investment Fund owns Newcastle -- but equally those sources believe they can compete with the financially hamstrung La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.
That might be their view but Madrid, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan will always be able to offer the chance to play on the biggest stages. Saudi Arabia's hosting of the Club World Cup gives Al-Ittihad and Benzema a chance to take on the Champions League winners next season but legends are made in that competition and on the biggest European stages. Many leagues have tried to wrestle with that reality. None have succeeded so far. Few, however, have taken on the task with the ambition and expenditure of the Pro League.