Sven-Goran Eriksson could become the latest in an increasingly long line of high profile foreign players and managers to head to the Middle East. According to reports Erikssson, who is best known for his spell as manager of England, is on the verge signing a deal to manage Saudi Arabian club Al Hilal.
Despite having enjoyed only limited managerial success in recent years his appointment as manager of the Saudi Arabian side would still rank as a major surprise. Eriksson is regularly linked with high profile Premiership jobs and was believed to be a candidate for recent vacancies at Liverpool and Aston Villa.
While the standard of football in the Middle East is still substantially lower than in the elite European leagues Eriksson, who has reportedly been offered a one year deal worth around €1 million, will not be the only recognizable face from European football.
Al Hilal already have a sizeable contingent of foreign players; Romanian centre back Mirel Rădoi, Brazilian striker Thiago Neves, Swedish winger Christian Wilhelmsson and South Korean full back Lee Young-Pyo. These four players were acquired from various European clubs at a collective cost of over €20 million.
The Saudi Arabian league is not the only one in the region with a rapidly improving top tier. The Qatar Stars League (QSL) is currently home to former Middlesbrough striker Alfonso Alves and Ivory Coast international Amara Diana, who spent two years at Paris St Germain. Both are based at Al Rayyan and Diana, whose contract is supposedly worth €2.5 million a year, was quite frank about his reasons for making the switch from French football,
“From now I want to ensure my family’s financial future and only a Qatari club can permit me to do it,” he said.
Aged 28, Diana is still in his prime, and would have been far more likely to add to the eight caps he already has for his country had he remained in Europe. He has effectively sacrificed his international ambitions in return for the sort of financial incentives on offer to footballers in the Middle East. Diana will be joined in Qatar by fellow Ivory Coast internationals Bakari Kone and Aruna Dindane. Both recently signed for QSL side Lekhwiya despite interest from a number of European clubs.
The reigning QSL champions, Al-Gharafa, can boast Brazilian midfielder Juninho Pernambucano amongst their ranks. He scored 75 goals in 250 appearances during a trophy laden spell with French club Lyon but the most high profile player currently plying his trade in the region is Italy’s World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro. After a disappointing season for Juventus in Serie A Cannavaro made a surprise switch to Al-Ahli Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The former Real Madrid man will captain a side consisting overwhelmingly of domestic players and managed by former Leeds United and Aston Villa boss David O'Leary.
Any high calibre footballers following in the footsteps of Cannavero or Juninho leave themselves open to criticism. Leagues like the ones in Qatar and UAE are perceived as representing an easy pay day for players still capable of performing at a much higher level. This assessment is probably accurate but professionals in any walk of life will want to be renumerated for their services at the best possible rate. It might not be fashionable for footballers to admit to moving clubs for financial reasons but reality dictates that money will always be a major factor.
As the number of world class players in these leagues increases so the standard of football will improve. While players like Cannavaro might currently be playing at a much lower level then they are accustomed to, other players will be forced to raise their games to compete with this growing influx of experienced overseas players.
The UEFA financial fair play regulations will soon start to reign in the expenditure of European clubs making spending sprees such as the one which the Abu Dhabi Investment Group has financed at Manchester City a thing of the past.
Private individuals seduced by the prestige of football have been pouring money into football clubs with little hope of a financial return on their investment. This will no longer be permissible once the new rules take effect and as clubs attempt to put their financial houses in order transfer fees and salaries will probably be adversely affected.
The new regulations will have no impact on clubs operating outside of Europe and, as big spending teams like Manchester City are forced to reduce their wage bills in order to comply with the new regulations, the sort of salaries on offer in the Middle East will start to look even more attractive to top class players.
As a result of this new found need to balance the books clubs might be forced to reduce the level of wages on offer but player expectations are unlikely to decrease accordingly. In this climate there will be even more opportunity for wealthy Middle Eastern clubs to flash their cash in order to tempt the world’s best players away from Europe.
In previous years foreign footballers in the Middle East have generally fallen into one of two categories. There are the likes of Cannavaro and Juninho, who are past their prime and probably in search of one last pay day. Then there are players like Alves and Wilhelmsson desperate to resuscitate stuttering careers.
Recent arrivals such as Kone, Dindane and Nadir Belhadj, who has signed for QSL champions Al Sadd, are of a different breed altogether. All three are still in their prime and attracted interest from clubs in much more established leagues.
It is subtle rather than seismic but a shift in the balance of football's financial power is slowly starting to occur.