MANCHESTER, England (AP) — A lavish spending spree that has seen Saudi Arabia lure some of soccer's biggest stars to the oil-rich kingdom will come to a halt on Thursday when its transfer window shuts.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema have been the most notable signings of an ambitious recruitment drive that has shaken up the sport, while there were also attempts to land Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Mohamed Salah.
More marquee names could still head to the Saudi League before the window closes at midnight local time ( 10 p.m. UK), with Salah linked with a possible move to defending champion Al-Ittihad.
Liverpool reportedly rejected a bid worth 150 million pounds ($188 million) before last week's European transfer deadline, but Al-Ittihad could come back with an even higher offer to try to get the deal done.
Even if Salah does not move before Thursday’s deadline, Saudi Arabia has established itself as a major player in global soccer in the space of less than a year.
Ronaldo's decision in December to head to Al-Nassr has opened the door to a slew of the game's top players following suit by swapping Europe's biggest leagues for one that was previously little known outside of Asia.
A host of Champions League winners have since made the move, with N'Golo Kante, Sadio Mane, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Aymeric Laporte also taking up the riches on offer.
It is not clear where the spending will end, either, after the kingdom's Public Investment Fund (PIF) took up a majority ownership stake in four of the country’s top clubs, Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal.
The failed attempts to sign Messi and Mbappe were evidence that nothing is considered out of reach for the wealthiest Saudi teams.
Al-Hilal was behind both of those moves, with its $332 million bid for Mbappe a world record for soccer.
It was no surprise then that it eventually secured the signing of one of the sport's biggest names in Neymar, who joined from Paris Saint-Germain.
Should Liverpool be convinced to sell Salah, it would be yet another coup for Saudi soccer in a short space of time and likely put Europe's top clubs on even higher alert as to the league's pulling power.
Saudi Arabia has sought in recent years to buy its way into international sports. Besides Ronaldo, whose contract reportedly earns him up to $200 million a year, Saudi-funded LIV Golf has shaken up professional golf.
The moves are cast as part of efforts by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to leverage the kingdom’s oil wealth to provide new jobs and opportunities for Saudi Arabia’s youth. However, critics have dismissed the efforts as “sportswashing,” attempting to leverage professional sports to clean up its public image in the face of its human rights record.
As well as investing in boxing, Formula One racing and tennis, there is also speculation that the country wants to host the 2030 men’s soccer World Cup.
Its transfer spree has been its most spectacular move yet.
Al-Hilal is Saudi's most successful team, having won the league championship a record 18 times and the Asian Champions League four times. It was runner up at this year's Club World Cup, even before transforming its team with a host of stars.
As well as Neymar, it has signed Yassine Bounou, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Ruben Neves and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Ronaldo has been joined at Al-Nassr by Mane, Marcelo Brozovic, Laporte and Alex Telles.
Even before attempts to sign Salah, Al-Ittihad brought in Benzema, Kante and Fabinho.
Al-Ahli have put together an impressive attack consisting of Firmino, Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin. Among other signings are former Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, midfielder Franck Kessie from Barcelona and Gabri Veiga.
Al-Ettifaq is not among the clubs backed by PIF, but it has hired former Rangers and Aston Villa manager Steven Gerrard as coach, and signed ex-Liverpool captain Henderson.
As deadline day approaches, more signings are expected to come.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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