SAO PAULO: After six seasons in France’s Paris Saint-Germain, footballer Neymar Jr. is ready to play for Riyadh’s Al-Hilal after a multimillion-dollar deal was reached earlier this week.
The Brazilian forward is the latest Saudi Professional League high-profile acquisition this season, after world stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema were transferred to Saudi clubs since December 2022.
One of the greatest idols in the sport, 31-year-old Neymar has more than 200 million followers on Instagram and is one of the most famous Brazilian celebrities nowadays.
The combination of his high-quality performance on the pitch and his media fame is expected to have a significant impact on Saudi football.
“He’s a world star and is at the height of his career. He’ll keep playing for Brazil’s national team and may be decisive in its future accomplishments,” Ubiratan Leal, a sports commentator at ESPN Brazil, told Arab News, adding that Neymar’s deal is in a way more important than Ronaldo’s, who was hired by Al-Nassr in December.
“Ronaldo is bigger than Neymar — he’s probably among the 10 major players in football’s history. But he’s ending his career and wasn’t able to keep playing for European clubs,” said Leal. Neymar, however, “could be included in any team in the world and would be its star player.”
Mauricio Noriega, a sports commentator at Radio Transamerica and website Trivela, told Arab News that Neymar “is still relatively young and can play high-level football for several years ahead.
“He can make a great contribution to Saudi football. His style is attractive to the audience — he likes to dribble and to show an artful way of scoring his goals.”
Noriega said Neymar can captivate Saudi football fans if “he manages to adequately prepare himself and regain his motivation.”
In recent years, he became a constant target of the French press and of PSG fans, and the atmosphere in the club was not positive.
Press reports attributed his decision to leave the Parisian club before the expiration of his contract to his complicated relationship with Kylian Mbappe.
On Monday, Neymar seemed to confirm such accounts by liking a social media post that said Mbappe told PSG to decide between the two.
“Now Neymar is joining a club that’s dominant in Asia and has a huge number of fans. He won’t have that feeling of not being able to reach his goals that he had in PSG,” Leal said, adding that he needs to feel “satisfied in his personal life outside the pitch, which is something that he cherishes very much, and Saudi Arabia certainly can offer him an enjoyable life. If he feels comfortable there, he’ll show great performances and will keep playing there.”
Neymar could become a protagonist in a league that has been drawing growing global attention since Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund decided to invest in the country’s four major clubs, Noriega said, referring to Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.
In the SPL, he will meet a number of Brazilian players, including recent acquisitions such as Roberto Firmino, who plays for Jeddah’s Al-Ahli, and Fabinho, who is at Al-Ittihad. The Jeddah squad is also the current club of Romarinho.
Players Carlos Eduardo and Malcom will be Neymar’s Brazilian colleagues at Al-Hilal. The club’s manager, Portuguese Jorge Jesus, not only speaks the same language as Neymar but also knows Brazilian football and culture, after a victorious tenure as Flamengo’s manager a few years ago.
Historically, Brazilian players have been fundamental to Al-Hilal’s success, and have helped popularize football in Saudi Arabia.
“That’s the case with Rivellino, who played for Al-Hilal at the end of the 1970s, when Saudi football was becoming professional. He also had an artful style and drew massive audiences to the stadiums,” Noriega said.
Leal said with so many football stars in Saudi Arabia — including Ronaldo, Neymar and Benzema — more and more international fans “will see that it has a technically relevant league that’s important to follow.
“In Europe, there’s a certain prejudice against football played in other nations, including in traditional arenas like Brazil and Argentina. Saudi Arabia will keep facing such prejudice for some time, despite the recent acquisitions.”
But things may change when “football fans realize that the Saudi league is greatly competitive and has high-level performances,” Leal added.
“There’s a real fanaticism about football in Saudi Arabia, especially when we talk about major clubs like Al-Hilal.
“More and more people outside the country will understand that the Saudis aren’t kidding when it comes to football.”