The 2023/24 Saudi Pro League is set for its biggest ever season following an unprecedented summer of recruitment that will see the likes of Neymar, Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante and Ruben Neves take on Cristiano Ronaldo.
Last season, the league permitted teams to register eight foreign players, up by one from the previous campaign. That remains the same for this season.
We take a look at the most-high profile foreign recruits as well as the best homegrown players in the Saudi top-flight.
The Brazilian superstar has been tipped for the top since his fledgling days at Santos where he debuted as a 17-year-old. Top European clubs battled for his signature and he ended up at Barcelona where he formed a blockbuster front three with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. Two La Liga titles and a Champions League followed before he became the world's most expensive player with a €222 million move to Paris Saint-Germain. In Paris he won the league five times while continuing to excel with the Brazilian national team for whom he shares the scoring record with Pele. His move to the SPL saw him become the face of Al Hilal, and they'll hope he can propel them towards yet another league crown.
The Portuguese superstar paved the way for the current influx of players this summer when he signed for Al Nassr last December after leaving Manchester United. The five-time Ballon d'Or scored an impressive 14 goals in 16 games for Nassr last term but could not guide the Riyadh club to the title, losing out to Al Ittihad. Now 38, Ronaldo is one the greatest players of all time, having won five Uefa Champions Leagues and league titles in England, Spain and Italy. He is both international football's record caps holder (200) and scorer (123).
The current Ballon d’Or winner joined champions Al Ittihad in June after 14 trophy-laden years at Real Madrid. Aged 35, the Frenchman left as the Spanish club’s second all-time leading goalscorer, with 353 goals. In his time at the Bernabeu, Benzema helped Madrid to five Uefa Champions Leagues and four La Liga titles, along with five Club World Cups and three Copa del Reys.
A 2018 World Cup winner with France, the 32-year-old midfielder moved to Ittihad following a hugely successful time in England with Leicester City and Chelsea. A two-time Premier League champion, Kante won basically every major trophy during his seven-year stay at Chelsea, including the Champions League. Considered one of the best defensive midfielders of his generation.
The Brazil international, 31, signed for newly promoted Al Ahli on a free transfer after his contract with Liverpool had expired. During eight memorable years at Anfield, Firmino became a firm fan favourite, capturing a Premier League title, FA Cup, League Cup, Fifa Club World Cup and the 2019 Champions League. Left having scored 111 goals in 362 appearances, while he has 55 caps for Brazil, scoring 17 times.
Considered one of the premier centre-backs in Europe across more than 300 appearances at Italian side Napoli, the 32-year-old Senegal captain joined Al Hilal after a disappointing debut season at Chelsea. However, at Napoli Koulibaly was a real hit, named four times in the Serie A team of the year and voted as the best defender in Italy in 2019. Led his national team last year to Africa Cup of Nations success.
The Portuguese winger, 24, was perhaps a surprise addition given his age and profile, but the lure of the Saudi champions proved too great. Jota joined the Jeddah club after two extremely successful years at Celtic in which he scored 28 goals and registered 26 assists in 83 matches having signed initially on loan from Benfica. A league winner in his homeland, he won the double in first campaign in Glasgow and then the treble last season.
The Portugal international, 26, became Al Hilal’s record signing when he swapped Wolves for the Riyadh club for a reported £47 million ($60m). Neves had spent six years at the English club, spearheading their promotion to the Premier League and then successive top-seven finishes. In all, he scored 26 goals in 253 appearances. Capped 40 times by his country, he was part of the team’s squad at the 2022 World Cup.
The Croatian midfielder, 30, brings a ton of experience to Al Nassr following his transfer from Champions League runners-up Inter Milan. Aged 30, Brozovic spent eight years at the San Siro, winning the 2020/21 Scudetto and two Italian Cups. A key part of an overperforming Croatia side who reached the final of the 2018 World Cup and then took bronze in Qatar last December, he has 87 caps for his country.
Another Africa Cup of Nations winner with Senegal, the goalkeeper followed compatriot Koulibaly to Saudi, albeit for Jeddah side Al Ahli. Like the defender, Mendy made the move from Chelsea, although he had actually fallen out of favour last season. Still, the 31-year-old enjoyed success in his three years at Stamford Bridge – he has a Champions League trophy and a Fifa Club World Cup to show for it.
At 28 and linked continuously to a number of leading European clubs, the Serbia international represents another sizeable coup for the Saudi Pro League. Milinkovic-Savic spent eight years at Lazio, scoring 69 goals in 341 appearances and lifting the 2019 Italian Cup and two Italian Super Cups. As captain last season, the midfielder was integral to the team’s second-placed finish in Serie A. He joins Al Hilal on a three-year deal, with the transfer fee rumoured to be $44 million.
The midfielder posted an emotional farewell video to Liverpool fans after 12 trophy-laden years at Anfield to link up with his former Anfield teammate Steven Gerrard at Al Ettifaq. The England international, 33, succeeded Gerrard as Liverpool captain, skippering them to the Premier League title in 2020 – the Merseyside club's first English top-flight title in 30 years – as well as the Uefa Champions League crown in 2019. Henderson joins the Damman side on a three-year deal for a transfer fee of around £12 million.
The Algerian ended his five-year stay at Manchester City as a treble winner having helped Pep Guardiola's side sweep the board in 2022/23, winning the Premier League, FA Cup and Uefa Champions League. In all, he made 236 City appearances after joining from Leicester City in 2018, scoring 78 goals. Mahrez won 11 trophies during his time at the Etihad Stadium. He has signed a contract at Al Ahli through to 2027.
A former teammate of Cristiano Ronaldo’s at Manchester United, the Brazil full-back will renew that relationship with the Portuguese star at Al Nassr. Telles, 30, became the latest recruit at last season’s runners-up and arrives after helping Sevilla to the Europa League crown in May – while on loan. In signing for Nassr, he ends a three-year stay at United, in which he made 50 appearances. Has 12 caps for Brazil, too.
A key contributor in Newcastle United’s recent rapid improvement, the French winger makes up a sumptuous Al Ahli attack alongside Firmino and Mahrez. Saint-Maximin, 26, marries blistering pace with dazzling trickery, scoring 12 times in the Premier League in 111 appearances following his transfer from Nice. Such an exciting player to watch, however, injury restricted him to only 12 league starts last season, while he can often struggle for consistency.
The Brazil winger, 26, swapped Zenit Saint Petersburg for Al Hilal to become another top-level signing at the Riyadh club. Malcom had previously represented Bordeaux and Barcelona having moved to Europe from Corinthians in his homeland. Joined Zenit in 2019 after a stop-start year at the Nou Camp, and last season shot his team to the Russian Premier League. With 23 goals, he concluded the campaign with the competition’s Golden Boot.
One former Liverpool captain joins another. Henderson, 33, will surely wear the armband for Al Ettifaq following his move from the Premier League giants. The midfielder departed Anfield after 12 years, seven major trophies and 492 appearances. His greatest successes with the club were leading them to the 2019/20 Premier League crown – a first top-flight title in 30 years – and the 2018/19 Uefa Champions League trophy.
A free agent, the French striker will lead the line for Al Ettifaq this season after spending the past five years at Lyon. However, Dembele did have an albeit brief, and unsuccessful, loan spell in La Liga with Atletico Madrid in 2021. He was, however, a huge hit in the Scottish top-flight after signing for Celtic from Fulham in 2016, helping fire the club to back-to-back trebles. In all, he struck 51 goals in 94 matches. Now 27, scored 70 goals in 172 Lyon appearances.
Al Ittihad’s impressive spend sustained with the recruitment of the accomplished Liverpool midfielder. The Brazil international, 29, earned a reputation as one of the world’s best defensive midfielders during five, trophy-laden years at Anfield, instrumental in particular in Liverpool winning the Premier League and Champions League. A regular for his country, Fabinho scored 11 goals and created 10 assists in 219 matches for the English club.
A difficult single season at Bayern Munich should not disguise the size of the signing for Al Nassr. Mane, 31, is regarded as one of football's premier forwards, that stature secured following six excellent years at Liverpool in which he won practically every major honour, including the Premier League and Champions League. Struck 120 times in 269 appearances, and still managed 12 goals in 38 matches for Bayern. A 2021 Africa Cup of Nations winner with Senegal, and two-time African footballer of the year.
After a protracted transfer, Al Hilal finally got their star frontman, eventually striking a deal with Premier League side Fulham. Mitrovic, 28, signed a three-year contract the Riyadh club, leaving English football following eight years across spells at Newcastle United and Fulham. A league winner in his native Serbia and also Belgium, was key to both clubs’ return to the Premier League, twice winning the Championship’s Golden Boot. Serbia’s all-time leading scorer, with 52 goals in 81 appearances.
The centre-back signed for Al Nassr for a reported $30 million after five-and-a-half, trophy-laden years with Manchester City. Laporte, 29, helped the club capture 12 major honours, including five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, three League Cups and the Champions League, but made only 24 appearances last season as City sealed the treble. Having represented France at youth-team level, the defender switched allegiance to Spain in 2021, going on to earn 22 caps for the national team. Part of the Spain side at last year’s World Cup.
Viewed as one of the hottest prospects in Europe, the prodigious central midfielder reportedly put aside interest from Chelsea, Liverpool and Italian champions Napoli to move to Al Ahli. Veiga, 21, has been tipped for stardom since debuting for Celta Vigo in 2021. Debuted for his boyhood club aged 18 and went on the make 50 league appearances. Highly technical, Veiga has represented Spain’s Under-21 side, but is yet to be called into the country’s senior team.
The former Atletico Madrid winger-cum-wing-back joins Al Shabab on a three-year deal having spent separate spells with Diego Simeone’s side. Carrasco, 30, was part of the Atletico team who lifted the 2018 Europa League and then the La Liga crown in the 2021/21 season. Scored also in the Uefa Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid in 2016. A regular with the Belgium national team, has been part of the past two World Cup campaigns.
Another Liverpool old boy is in at Al Ettifaq, with the Dutch midfielder joining in Dammam two former captains at Anfield: Steven Gerrard, now manager, and Jordan Henderson, the new skipper. Wijnaldum, 32, enjoyed huge success at Liverpool, winning the Premier League, Champions League and Fifa Club World Cup. Left to sign for Paris Saint-Germain, where he captured the 2021/22 Ligue 1 crown, but spent last season on loan at Italy’s Roma. Has 90 caps for the Netherlands, missing the 2022 World Cup through injury.
The Portugal midfielder became the latest recruit at Al Nassr as last season’s runners-up bid to go one better this campaign. Otavio, 28, moves to the Riyadh club from Porto, with various reports citing a $65 million transfer fee. After joining Porto from Internacional in Brazil, his country of birth, the winger won the Premeira Liga three times, together with a trio of Taca de Portugal cups, scoring 31 goals in 283 games. Granted Portuguese citizenship in 2021, was part of his country’s squad at last year’s World Cup.
A no-nonsense defender, the Turkish international joins Al Ahli from Italy’s Atalanta on a three-year deal. Demiral, 25, moved to Serie A in 2019, initially on loan at Sassuolo before spending three years at Juventus, winning the 2019/20 Scudetto and the Coppa Italia the following season. However, was loaned to Atalanta in his final campaign at Juve, with the switch made permanent last year. Made 28 appearances for the club last season. Typically deployed in central defence but can play also as a right-back, represented Turkey at Euro 2020.
Salem Al Dawsari
Long viewed the league’s principal local talent, the Al Hilal winger has a knack for match-defining moments. Most recently, Al Dawsari struck the winner in Saudi Arabia’s shock victory against Argentina at the 2022 World Cup. Practically a one-club man – he had a brief loan at Spain's Villarreal – the 31-year-old has won the Saudi league for times, three King’s Cups and two Asian Champions Leagues. However, he was sent off in two Champions League final defeats, including last May.
Salman Al Faraj
The hugely experienced midfielder, 33, captains both Al Hilal and Saudi Arabia, conveying his stature within the domestic game in particular. Al Faraj, who like Al Dawsari represents his boyhood club, has for some time constituted the heartbeat of club and country, a seven-time Saudi champion who latterly guided Hilal to Champions League glory in 2019 and 2021. However, he was beset by injuries last season, which curtailed his 2022 World Cup.
Another Al Hilal star, the energetic midfielder shone at the World Cup, even if Saudi Arabia did not make it out of the group stage. Kanno, 28, has been part of a dominant Al Hilal side since his first-team debut in 2017 and has the collection of trophies to prove it. Was apparently one of the lead names attracting European attention via his performances in Qatar. With Neves and Milinkovic-Savic now club teammates, interesting to see where Kanno fits in.
The Brazilian forward, 29, was Al Nassr’s standout star until Ronaldo’s arrival, but was not distracted too severely last season as he struck 20 times – second in the final scoring charts – to fire the club’s runner-up finish. Also represented Benfica and Besiktas, winning league titles at both, Talisca has been temperamental and at times truculent since joining Nassr in 2021. No doubting his talent, though.
For sure a lead light in Saudi, the Al Shabab midfielder has become the fulcrum of the side since making the switch from Spain’s Sevilla in 2020. Now 35, Banega previously plied his trade for Boca Juniors in his homeland, Valencia and Inter Milan. Captained Al Shabab to a fourth-placed finish last season, while he counts among his major trophies the Copa Libertadores, the Copa del Rey and three Europa Leagues.
The Brazilian forward, 32, has excelled at Al Ittihad following his 2018 transfer from UAE’s Al Jazira – off the back of a strong Fifa Club World Cup in which he scored in the semi-final defeat to Real Madrid. Having already won the trophy with Corinthians, Romarinho was then crucial to Ittihad’s league success last season with 13 goals, including the winner in the decisive top-of-the-table clash with Al Nassr.
Crucial to Al Ittihad’s recent upturn in fortunes, the Egypt international was also instrumental in last season’s title win, captaining the team to a first top-flight trophy in nine years. Hegazy, 32, has played for the likes of Fiorentina, Al Ahly and West Bromwich Albion, and boasts 83 appearances for his country. Was runner-up at the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, when he made team of the tournament.
The prolific Al Ittihad striker fired an unrivalled 21 goals last season to power his team to the title. Not only did it secure Hamdallah a second Saudi top-flight crown – his first came in 2019 with Al Nassr – but it sealed a third Golden Boot. The Moroccan international, 32, struck a league record 34 times in that 2018/19 season and ended 2019 as the world’s top goalscorer for the calendar year. Has 110 goals in 113 Saudi Pro League appearances, while he was part of the Morocco squad at the 2022 World Cup.
The Jamaica winger got his move, eventually, to Al Ettifaq from Everton having pushed the Premier League club hard in the closing days of the window. Gray, 27, spent two years on Merseyside after signing from Bayer Leverkusen, chipping in with 12 goals in 75 appearances. After beginning his career with hometown club Birmingham City, and then joining Leicester City midway through their shock 2015/16 Premier League title success, Gray ultimately switched international allegiance to Jamaica. Debuted for the country this year. Has signed a four-year contract at Ettifaq.