Why Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah wouldn’t even be the most important signing that Saudi Arabia has made

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Saudi side Al-Ittihad is trying to sign Mohamed Salah - but if he does make the move, it won’t be the most important signing the Saudi Pro League has made.

It would be an undeniably sensational transfer if it happens – Mohamed Salah, Liverpool’s star player, one of the faces of the Premier League and widely regarded as among the finest players in the world, is a target for Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad, who are - alongside creating the most unhinged player signing videos known to mankind - trying to put together an eye-watering package to tempt the 31-year-old to the Middle East.

But while it would be an immense statement of intent if it went through – and Liverpool have publicly stated that Salah isn’t for sale, while the Egyptian’s agent has moved to suggest he is committed to the Merseyside club – it wouldn’t be the most important signing that the Saudi PIF has funded. It wouldn’t even be that of Cristiano Ronaldo, the first big name to take the riyals and run. It will be Gabri Veiga.

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Gabri Veiga is a Spanish Under-21 international and has scored 11 goals in 56 games for Celta Vigo.Gabri Veiga is a Spanish Under-21 international and has scored 11 goals in 56 games for Celta Vigo.
Gabri Veiga is a Spanish Under-21 international and has scored 11 goals in 56 games for Celta Vigo. | Getty Images

The 21-year-old Celta Vigo forward has been the subject of intense transfer interest from several huge clubs. Real Madrid wanted him, as did Napoli, Liverpool, Newcastle United and Manchester United, supposedly. He is a lavishly gifted young player who had his pick from historic giants and Champions League outfits. And he’s chosen Saudi Arabia.

Money was the main factor, of course. Veiga was in discussions with Napoli over a contract reported to be worth around €2.5m (£2.1m) per year – his contract with Al-Ahli will reportedly pay him a total of €40m (£34.3m) over three years, more than five times as much. As Celta manager Rafa Benítez said of the deal, “it is a situation that changes his life and his family for good.” Every year he will earn almost double the reported salary of the highest-paid Napoli player, Hirving Lozano.

But luring money-motivated players was never the issue for the Saudi Pro League. Enormous salaries are their calling card. Nobody goes to play football in the Middle East for the glory – at least not yet. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema went because their deals effectively amounted to exceptionally lucrative retirement packages, and they didn’t really care about the possible impact of sportswashing. Younger players like Sergej Milinković-Savić and Rúben Neves followed because the money was amazing and future opportunities for professional advancement were relatively limited. Everyone who has made the trip so far had either won the Champions League or was unlikely to do so on their previous career trajectory.

Which is why Al-Ahli securing the signature of Gabri Veiga is different. Veiga is a gifted wonderkid with the world at his feet and his career ahead of him. He hasn’t won any major trophies. And while you can certainly interpret this move as demonstrating an interest in money over glory – something Toni Kroos certainly seemed to do when he labelled the impending transfer “embarrassing” on X – you can bet that the Saudi Pro League will be very keen to use Veiga’s presence to spin the image of their league from a retirement home for the terminally wealthy to a genuinely competitive place to play your best years.

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Of course, there will be hurdles to achieving that and to turning this first wave of Saudi PIF-funded transfers into something with a genuine legacy. The PIF are only fully funding four teams in the league, which will inevitably create a huge gulf between the Big Four and the runners and riders (with apologies to Jordan Henderson, it’s unlikely that his presence at Al-Ettifaq will bridge the gap) – but then, La Liga is one of the most powerful and popular leagues in the world and has, at best, three teams that have had a chance to win the league in any given year since the turn of the century.

There’s also the fact that the clubs can’t compete in the Champions League, or in any other truly prestigious events – but perhaps the sight of Ronaldo and Benzema and friends playing against each other will make a Saudi domestic title feel truly significant for some people, or will greatly enhance the profile of the AFC Champions League. And Gabri Veiga will be the big test case for this – if he plays in Saudi Arabia for several years and can be counted in the court of public opinion as having had a successful and decorated career, then other young players may well want to follow in his footsteps knowing that they can earn glory as well as hard cash. If his achievements are met with a collective global shrug, the Saudi Pro League will have a hard time selling themselves to the next generation of ambitious starlets.

Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal in the Arab Club Champions Cup final against Al-Hilal.Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal in the Arab Club Champions Cup final against Al-Hilal.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates a goal in the Arab Club Champions Cup final against Al-Hilal. | Getty Images

Which is why Veiga’s move is so much more important than Salah’s would be, for all that Salah is the bigger name and the better player. The perception of the former Roma star’s move would be an ageing player, into his thirties, moving for big bucks towards the end of his prime years, and people would know that Saudi Arabia’s motivation for signing him would be far more about using his colossal profile in the Arab world to encourage tourism that it would be to do with his footballing skills. With Veiga, it could be sold differently – a young man who believes Saudi Arabia is a place he can fulfil his dreams. Granted that, in reality, his dreams probably just consist of being very rich, but he could be the player that sells the Saudi Dream to the next generation. You can bet that the Pro League’s slowly-slickening media machine will be very aware of the possibilities.

The transfer is expected to be announced some time over the weekend, and may well have been confirmed by the time you read this. In a few years’ time, it could look like the deal which changed the centre of power in the footballing world, shifting it eastwards. Or it could just end up as a half-remembered tale of a young man who took the money and ran. The story of the Saudi Pro League is still being written, but Veiga could be writing the foreword as we speak.

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