Ruben Neves has finally landed in Riyadh to finalize his move to Saudi Pro League side Al-Hilal, and it is a move that seems to have attracted attention for one thing above all else: his age.
The Portuguese international is undoubtedly a massive talent in his own right but, in terms of profile, he is not quite in the same bracket as fellow Pro League players Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema. What he does have, though, is time on his side to reach that level.
Al-Nassr star Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad’s Benzema are highly decorated megastars of the game but, as we all know, they are in the twilight of their careers. Ronaldo is 38; an incredibly fit 38, certainly, but not even a specimen as fine as the Portuguese legend can play forever. Benzema, meanwhile, is 35.
This is only natural. When a league in a country outside of the traditional elite of world football — England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France — start to foster ambitions of attracting the best talent on the planet, the first to arrive are usually players in their 30s.
In the past, older stars were the ones more likely to come to this part of the world, perhaps because after successful careers in which they had won all there is to win, they were more open to new challenges and experiences.
The Saudi league has only just started to attract the attention of the rest of the world. It is going to take time for this global audience and players to become familiar with one another.
Yet there are signs that this might be happening relatively quickly, as the arrival of Neves at Al-Hilal shows. His is a different kind of signing, and not only because it is the first major deal for the club after they were banned from transfers during the past two windows.
It marks the arrival of a player who, at the age of only 26, is at the peak of his football powers, or approaching it.
The deal took a while to complete but was finally announced on Friday. Neves arrives from Wolverhampton Wanderers in the English Premier League and had attracted the attention of a number of clubs across Europe. He was strongly linked with a move to Barcelona, for example, but the Spanish champions were unable to come up with the funds to secure his signature. There was also reportedly interest from Manchester United and Liverpool, and for a few days it looked like Newcastle United, seeking to strengthen the squad for their long-awaited return to the UEFA Champions League, might step in.
All of this is understandable. The midfielder is a player whose best is yet to come. Therefore his signing is a statement by a team that not only want to get their domestic and continental titles back, but also to remind others that the Blues can flex their muscles in the international transfer market and can compete with the biggest clubs in the world.
“This doesn’t have the feel of MLS (Major League Soccer in the US) when that first came onto the scene, where it became almost like a retirement home for some of the best players,” former England goalkeeper Paul Robinson told the UK media.
“Look at Neves at 26; they (Saudi teams) are targeting players of a younger age. This isn’t just a jolly at the end of your career. They are looking at players in their prime and taking players to their league when they are at the best of their ability, which will strengthen their league and strengthen their credibility — which they have to do.
“Saudi Arabia are serious. This is not something that’s going to go away quickly. This is not a flash in the pan. This is a country that are extremely serious with their love for sport and their investment in sport, and they are attracting some of the world’s best talent. You can see that with Benzema and Ronaldo, and Neves now the latest acquisition.”
Neves also adds some more Portuguese flavor to the league. There is already, of course, Ronaldo playing for Al-Nassr in Riyadh, but Neves will also see an even more familiar face on at least two occasions next season: His former Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno Santo, who is now manager of Al-Ittihad.
Neves has been playing in England since 2017 and established himself as a firm favorite among fans of Wolves. They were resigned to him leaving, though they might find it a little less painful to at least see him in the blue of Al-Hilal rather than in red and lining up against them for Liverpool or Man United.
This is a significant signing, and not just for Al-Hilal. The Saudi league is showing the world that it is an attractive destination for highly talented players. Saudi clubs are now serious participants in the international transfer market and are capable of beating big European clubs in the battle to sign stars that still have their best years ahead of them. Neves is the first. There are sure to be more to come.