Cristiano Ronaldo, N'Golo Kante, turn Euro 2024 into referendum on Saudi Pro League

Cristiano Ronaldo, N'Golo Kante, turn Euro 2024 into referendum on Saudi Pro League

Published Jun. 19, 2024 9:23 p.m. ET

Cristiano Ronaldo has just one thing on his mind right now — winning Euro 2024 — but even the hyper-focused, 39-year-old soccer megastar won't have failed to notice a tournament subplot that he's at the very center of.

There are 14 players participating in the Euros who ply their club trade in the Saudi Pro League, having been lured by the whopping sums offered as the Middle East nation tries to rapidly build its domestic competition into one of the world's best.

Ronaldo is the headliner, just like he always is, and how effectively he and the other members of the Saudi export collective perform over the coming weeks is a de facto referendum that could have a seismic impact on what happens next in global soccer.

It is easy to sniff at the Saudi league and dismiss it as a minor operation when compared to the storied competitions in England, Spain and Italy where Ronaldo spent most of his career, before joining Al-Nassr and scoring 35 goals in 31 league games last season.


But the league's cast list is an increasingly impressive one and arguments that playing in the Arabic world leaves players ill-prepared for major tournaments doesn't seem to be holding much water.

Some of the best of the past generation are there, names like Ronaldo, Neymar Jr., Karim Benzema and Sadio Mane. English Premier League icon Kevin de Bruyne could be next, having said he is "open" to a move.

How the Euros plays into the discussion is layered. If this summer, there was a large group of players frozen out of their national team squad on account of playing in Saudi, or turning up at the Euros in poor shape or form, it might have deterred some from accepting future offers there.

Instead, the opposite may turn out to be the case. 

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The way the group has performed so far has been a mix of solid and superb. N'Golo Kante has been the undisputed highlight, after being awarded the player of the match award as France won its opener against Austria.

Somehow, Kante seems to have become even more tirelessly fit in the year he has been with Al-Ittihad, after leaving Chelsea once his contract expired.

"His performance? You saw him," Deschamps told reporters, after the Austria game. "We were sure about recalling him. He is smart, on a technical level. 

"He has the capacity to read balls and project himself. He was really bright and we needed that."

Ronaldo did not score as Portugal grabbed a late winner against the Czech Republic, but was dangerous throughout, even though there is a growing feeling in Portugal that his best use might be as a sub.

Regardless, head coach Roberto Martinez seems intent to get as much use out of Ronaldo as possible, and has stated that he has no concerns about the player's lingering ability and sharpness.

"No one gets into our national team just by having a name," Martinez said. "He is here on merit and the numbers are there to back that up."

For Serbia, striker Aleksandar Mitrovic led the offense against England, being selected for the 1-0 defeat ahead of forwards from AC Milan and Juventus.

Serbia head coach Dragan Stojkovic actively praised the decision when Mitrovic and Sergey Milinkovic-Savic both joined Al-Hilal, saying it would help the national team that they were playing together each week.

Spain's Aymeric Laporte, Portugal's Ruben Neves and the Netherlands' Georginio Wijnaldum all got picked for their national team after moving to the Middle East.

The Saudi Pro League has four clubs controlled by the country's Public Investment Fund, the massive financial vehicle that uses oil profits to build further influence and a lasting legacy for the nation.

But the opportunities, and the money, do not stop there. Nicolae Stanciu has been Romania's best player of the Euros so far and plays for 10th place finisher Damac. Stanciu showed his quality with a spectacular goal against Ukraine to push his team to the top of Group E.

As well as the Euros, the Copa América has four Saudi Pro League players. The African Cup of Nations had 25, according to Gulf newspaper "The National."

This current tournament seems to be showing players can still get selected and operate at a strong level. Given how soccer reacts to trends, this may alleviate any stumbling block for other players considering chasing the cash on offer.

The balance of power in soccer is not what it used to be. Times are changing, and what we are seeing in front of us is part of it.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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