Roberto Firmino targeted as part of Saudi state’s bizarre league takeover

Roberto Firmino is one of a host of high-profile free agents targeted as part of a bizarre revamp of the Saudi Pro League by the country’s royal family.

Headlines were made worldwide when Cristiano Ronaldo made his switch to Al-Nassr in January, raising the profile of the Saudi Pro League.

Now, the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund PIF, owners of Newcastle and LIV Golf, are launching a major revamp of the league by taking over its four biggest clubs.

As reported by the Times, the PIF have taken a 75 percent stake in Al-Nassr, champions Al-Ittihad, Asian Champions League finalists Al Hilal and Al-Ahli.

This comes with the league’s expansion to 18 teams, with each club permitted to field up to eight foreign players.

Four other clubs – Qadsia SC, Al-Diriyah Club, Al-Ula and Al-Suqoor FC – will now also be owned by state-funded companies, according to The Athletic.

PARIS, FRANCE - Saturday, May 28, 2022: Real Madrid's Karim Benzema (L) and Luka Modric? wait for a VAR decision during the UEFA Champions League Final game between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF at the Stade de France. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

These changes come as the PIF continues its expansion into global sport, with a bid for the 2030 World Cup mooted, and their plans involve acquiring more high-profile players.

Karim Benzema is joining Al-Ittihad on a two-year deal worth €200 million, while the Guardian reports that Al Hilal have offered Lionel Messi more than £350 million a year.

AFP, the world’s oldest news agency, reports that Firmino is among the other names being lined up for big-money offers to join the Saudi Pro League.

Sergio Ramos, N’Golo Kante, Luka Modric, Hugo Lloris, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets are among those who will also receive “quite lucrative offers,” according to AFP sources.

“[The PIF] is behind the transfer dealings rather than individual clubs,” it is explained, and “if the players sign, they will be divided between five Saudi clubs.”

Those clubs are Al Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Shabab.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 20, 2023: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino says an emotional goodbye to the supporters after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is, in effect, a bid to manufacture a more competitive league, with the names attached to those clubs designed to bring more attention and, therefore, investment.

Accusations of sportswashing, given Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, views on homosexuality and its treatment of women – among many other concerns – will be unavoidable.

For Firmino, though, it could serve as a highly lucrative venture at a point in which he may be considering the final stages of his career.

The Brazilian is the youngest of those players targeted, as he only turns 32 in October, but he has spent the last 12 years in Europe – eight of which were at Liverpool.

It is not the first time he has been linked with a move to Saudi Arabia, with Sky Germany‘s Florian Plettenberg – a source close to the player – reporting interest back in January.