Even considering the remarkable recent influx of players to the Saudi Pro League, it was difficult to imagine one individual deal emulating Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr at the end of last year.
But Neymar Jr. joining Al-Hilal is just a mouth-watering prospect and perhaps the most exciting of the deals that have been made in what has been an unforgettable summer.
Al-Hilal are the most successful team in the history of Saudi Arabian football. The Blues have also been Asian champions more than any other and have a strong case of being the biggest club on the continent.
And now they have Neymar and they are the subject of conversation for football fans around the world. It would be wrong, after all that has happened in recent weeks and months and all the big names that have arrived in the country, to say that this is a massive surprise and an unbelievable move, but it is still a huge deal.
Given the rivalry that exists between the club and Al-Nassr, it is perhaps also a natural step that, after Ronaldo signed for the Yellows in December to send genuine shockwaves around the world, Al-Hilal were always going to respond with one of the other names at the very top of the global football tree.
Neymar is a global superstar; there is no other way of putting it. Of all the players that have come to Saudi Arabia — and there have been genuine stars such as Karim Benzema, Ruben Neves, N’Golo Kante, Jordan Henderson, Sadio Mane and a growing list of others — there is only Ronaldo who could be said to have a bigger status in the game, and the Brazilian is seven years younger than the Portuguese star.
Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 is still a world record for a transfer fee that was €222 million ($240 million). The forward is an icon of the game and would be on the wish list of any club in the world that had the funds.
When he is on the pitch, there is a sense that anything can happen. I have seen him take such serious punishment from opposition players but in the end, he has a habit of punishing teams with a piece of magic and a couple of goals. A game against Japan in Singapore in 2014 stands out when he scored all four goals in that victory and he was just immense.
Many thought that he would head back to Barcelona as he left Paris, so it is a real coup for Al-Hilal to get his signature. It just means that there is going to be even more attention and interest in the Roshn Saudi League. In terms of star power on display, Ronaldo vs. Neymar ranks alongside any in the world. When you think that in the Riyadh derby there will also be names such as Mane, Brozkovic, Neves, Milinkovic-Savic, Koulibaly, Fofana and others on the pitch, it shows that the league really is going places.
There will also be huge interest in how he performs in Brazil and the rest of South America as well as the rest of the world. The biggest star in the biggest football nation in the world is now playing in Saudi Arabia.
Neymar has scored 77 goals for Brazil, equaling Pele’s tally (though that is disputed by Pele and the Brazilian federation who claim he scored 92). Neymar’s every move is followed closely back home and that is going to be the case now he is wearing the increasingly famous blue shirt — and it will also be fascinating to see who wins the shirt battle. Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr top is a common sight now in cities around the world and it is soon to be followed by Neymar’s Al-Hilal shirt.
And on the pitch, there are going to be consequences. Al-Hilal lost to Al-Nassr in the final of the King Salman Club Cup, and it was apparent that they lacked a little in attack. Al-Nassr had Ronaldo as a focal point, one who drove the team on. It was something that Hilal did not have — until now. With Neves and Savic behind him as well as Salem Al-Dawsari, Michael and Malcom, Neymar really could lead Al-Hilal to the next level and that means the title at home and in Asia. That is always the expectation at the club and even more so now.
The pressure will be on, but Neymar is no stranger to that. He has had issues with injuries of late, but the stage is set for him to come to Riyadh and do what he does best. This season was already a mouth-watering one in terms of talent, attention and all the storylines. Now it has moved up to the next level with Neymar and we all will be watching.