Neymar maintains Al Hilal's strong connection with Brazil stars

Paris Saint-Germain forward signed for Saudi Pro League club for $90m on two-year deal

Neymar celebrates with Marquinhos after scoring for Brazil against Croatia in the World Cup quarter-final in Qatar in 2022. Reuters
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With the futures of Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Harry Kane all sorted out, there is perhaps no transfer in world football being talked about more than Neymar’s €90 million move from Paris Saint-Germain to Al Hilal.

Brazil’s joint all-time top scorer and one of the greatest players of the 21st century signed a two-year contract to join Hilal on Tuesday, bringing to an end his six-year stay in the French capital.

He becomes the latest name to join the Saudi revolution that has already seen the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and many others join the Saudi Pro League.

Despite already being among the three highest spenders in the transfer market this summer, Al Hilal fans have looked in envy to their domestic rivals who have each added a name from the very top of world football to their ranks.

Across the city, Al Nassr are captained by one of the game’s all-time greats in Ronaldo, while in Jeddah, Al Ittihad, the closest team to Al Hilal in terms of success, are led by the current Ballon d’Or holder Benzema. Al Ahli have been transformed by a front three that rivals the very best in world football in Mahrez, Roberto Firmino and Allan Saint-Maximin.

In comparison, while Al Hilal have the impressive pairing of Ruben Neves and Sergei Milinkovic-Savic in midfield, their attacking third has to date only seen former Zenit Saint Petersburg attacker Malcom being paired against local players like Salem Al Dawsari and Abdullah Al Hamdan.

The Riyadh club unsuccessfully pursued Messi, then when he moved to Inter Miami, they turned their attention to Bernardo Silva then Neymar’s former teammate Mbappe, but as the league season kicked-off, they found themselves still fielding a front three of Malcom, Al Dawsari and Michael, who has not convinced since joining in January 2022.

Finally, the stars aligned for the team named after the crescent and a move for Neymar became possible with PSG and Mbappe reaching an agreement to keep him in Paris this season. Al Hilal finally have their own "Class A" star. A man worthy of the number ten shirt at Asia’s most successful football club in the new era of Saudi football. The 31-year-old could not be a more perfect fit for any club in the kingdom than he is for Al Hilal.

Almost 15 years before Neymar was born, one of the greatest players to ever emerge from Brazil was making the headlines for a shocking transfer from Fluminense to Al Hilal.

In 1978, football in Saudi Arabia was still in its formative years, with the nationwide league only a few years old when Al Hilal stunned the football world by announcing the signing of 1970 World Cup winner Rivellino. The moustachioed winger was at the same age Neymar is today and had been part of the quartet that included the legendary Pele, Jairzinho and Tostao, forming one of the most entertaining national teams of all time.

In four years in Riyadh, Rivellino, once described by Diego Maradona as one of his footballing idols, propelled Al Hilal to two consecutive league titles for the first time in their history added the 1980 King’s Cup, in the process scoring 23 goals in just over 50 matches. His famous left-footed strikes, including a title decider against archrivals Al Nassr, remain one of the most memorable football moments in the history of the nation.

What Rivellino didn’t know was that he would be starting a decades-long tradition of Brazilian players wearing the blue and white jersey and creating a legacy that would lead to the acquisition of Neymar 45 years later.

Over the course of its history, as many as 30 Brazilians have represented Al Hilal, more than three times the next most popular foreign nationality, including two who will be Neymar’s new teammates in Malcom and Michael.

Around the turn of the 21st century, Al Hilal were set to compete in their second Asian Club Championship final (now AFC Champions League), having become the first Saudi club to win the competition in 1991. Their opponents were a Jubilo Iwata side that featured some of Japan’s best players like Naohiro Takahara and Masahi Nakayama.

A Brazilian by the name of Sergio Ricardo was the hero of the night in front of 40,000 fans at King Fahd International Stadium, scoring a hat-trick, including a Golden Goal in extra time to bring home the title in a 3-2 win and write his name as an eternal Brazilian in the club history.

Since then, the tradition continued with Marcelo Camacho, who is often regarded as the most technically talented Brazilian to play in Saudi Arabia, wearing the club colours between 2004 and 2006.

Thiago Neves arrived from HSV Hamburg after an unsuccessful spell in Germany and went on to become the first Brazilian to captain the club in a three-year stint in which he played 122 times, scoring 59 goals for them including some stunning free-kick and long range efforts.

Neves’ record and popularity in Riyadh can only be matched by that of Carlos Eduardo. The player nicknamed "Super Eduardo" joined Al Hilal from FC Porto and became the foreign player with most appearances and goals for Al Hilal, racking up 81 goals in 157 appearances and becoming the club’s permanent captain in his last season before moving to Shabab Al Ahli in the UAE, having led them to winning the AFC Champions League in 2019.

In between Rivellino and Neymar, there were many names that left their mark. From defensive rock Digao to playmaking wizard Matheus Pereira and prolific albeit short-staying forwards Ailton Almeida and Leo Bonatini.

Every one of them has ensured that Neymar has arrived at a club where the legacy of Brazilian players is as prestigious as the history and name of the club itself.

Updated: August 16, 2023, 10:24 AM