Ruben Neves giving up on CL dream for Saudi Arabia a dispiriting taste of things to come

Dave Tickner
Ruben Neves of Wolves

Ruben Neves was always likely to leave Wolves this summer, and with the club’s blessing. But it was supposed to be about his own ambition…

“I want to be here but I never hide that I want to play Champions League football.

“It’s a hard decision. Me and my family love it here, but in football you have to go for your main goals. If it was my last game here, I really enjoyed it and I’m very thankful for the last six seasons.”

Ruben Neves’ departure from Wolves after six fine years at Molineux was always going to be a bit of a pisser, but it was a transfer that did at least seem likely to happen on good terms. He would be waved off with a cheer rather than a middle finger.

He had a year left on his contract and had made no secret of his desire to test himself at a higher level. Wolves, meanwhile, had spent more than anticipated in January to give Julen Lopetegui the tools to mastermind an ultimately impressively successful escape from the threat of relegation.

January spending left Wolves facing a summer working, as sporting director Matt Hobbs put it, “within FFP limitations”. There was some suggestion those limitations might see Lopetegui consider his future after making such an impact.

Given all that, selling Neves – a fine player for sure, but one in a position where Wolves do have other options – was probably a necessary evil. Better for the club to lose him and receive some money to invest on a goalscorer and keep Lopetegui sweet than the alternative.

And while Neves might not have been right at the top of any elite clubs’ wishlists, he will have been on them somewhere. With an agent as connected as Jorge Mendes, there’s no way a Champions League move would not have materialised for him this summer as midfield dominoes started to fall around Europe. Jude Bellingham’s move to Real Madrid meant that process had already begun.

Now, instead, Neves is off to the Saudi Arabia Pro League. He’s not the most high-profile player to make the move to a league already boasting the star wattage of Cristiano Ronaldo and now splashing all manner of cash after the country’s Public Investment Fund – also Newcastle’s owners – took charge of four of the biggest clubs. But he is perhaps the most dispiriting.

Read more: Fans too divided to stop PIF, Qatar, private equity from conquering football’s soul…

Neves is only 26. Saudi Arabia will no doubt achieve its goal of throwing enough cash at the league to make it one of the top 10 in the world. But it’s going to take longer to eat football than it did to consume golf whole. For now, the league remains a novelty act and lucrative retirement home for fading stars who have achieved all they set out to achieve in Europe.

A gifted 26-year-old midfielder who has not played in the Champions League since 2017 let alone won it multiple times like a Ronaldo or a Karim Benzema is a whole different thing. There’s no real criticism of Neves here, whose departure to the Saudis is grimly understandable in purely selfish financial terms if a reported untaxed £300k-a-week wage is remotely accurate. It’s a move that also sees him do right by Wolves, a club he will still leave on good terms and with a healthier bank balance thanks to an inflated £47m fee that realistically no major club in Europe was going to match.

But this is a player who only a few weeks ago was desperate to play Champions League football again. The impending deals for all manner of Chelsea deadwood are likely to provoke more headlines than Neves and certainly look set to allow Todd Boehly and co to rather conveniently get away with their absurd mistakes of the last 12 months. They’ll certainly provoke more anger and be a more conspicuous staging post in the Saudi Arabian plan to be a major player and ideally World Cup host by 2030.

Anyone doubting the probable success of that mission will soon be shaken out of their naivety. Golf has already fallen and while we may not have spoken up when Saudi Arabia came for golf because, well, it’s fucking g*lf, the speed with which it managed to Trojan Horse its way to the very heart of a major global sport should leave nobody in any doubt about the likely fate of other sports that find themselves on Saudi Arabia’s wishlist.

And football, the best and biggest of all the sports, is without doubt right at the very top of that list.

Anger will be plentiful and necessary as future deals roll in but for now this Neves one just leaves us feeling a bit sad and empty. It’s currently the record transfer for the Saudi league but it represents the most conspicuous reduction of a playing career. Ronaldo, Benzema and others had already secured their legacies. Neves will now always feel like a ‘what if?’ kind of player who could have achieved more. Three hundred grand a week will probably stop him thinking too much about it, but not so much the rest of us. The Champions League dream was a noble one, and it’s gone now.

Unless of course he gets an entirely unsuspicious loan move to Newcastle in January. Then we can all be happy, can’t we?