When Milos Degenek signed for Red Star Belgrade on a three-year deal back in July, it seemed as though the sentimental value of that move alone would see the centre-half through the full term of that contract.
At least, we hoped, the move back to Europe – to the club Degenek supported as a boy – from Yokohama F Marinos would eventually elevate the him to a higher level than Serbia with some impressive form.
Indeed Degenek was a regular fixture for Red Star both in domestically and in the Champions League, in which the club navigated the qualifying rounds to form a daunting group alongside Liverpool, Napoli and PSG.
Degenek was arguably the man of the match in the crucial qualifier against Red Bull Salzburg and then versus Liverpool at home which, to the surprise of most, Red Star won 2-0 despite the best efforts of Mohamed Salah and co.
In all competitions totalling 33 games – 20 in the league and 13 in Europe – Degenek played out a total of 2,937 minutes, featuring for the full 90 minutes in all but two Serbian league matches.
So it was something of a surprise to see Degenek linked with a January move to Saudi giants Al Hilal shortly before the beginning of the Asian Cup, and more so when the player completed the move estimated to at least match his €3 million release clause.
The move to the Middle-East was, as we have come to expect, met with scepticism. The usual counter-argument of ‘just for the money’ quickly came to the fore and who knows, maybe the financial rewards of the move was Degenek’s primary driver.
That, like Degenek’s exact salary at Al Hilal, we don’t know and may never know. A simple hypothesis though when considering the riches of the region suggests Degenek could be double, even triple what he was earning at Red Star.
If Degenek will earn such a figure, it is tough to blame the player for taking up the move which could come as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Some see the phrase ‘setting up for life’ as a throwaway, but football careers do not last forever.
At 24 and having inked a three-year contract, Degenek still has time to return to Europe if he wishes, and if he sees out the contract, he will be 27, going on 28, a time that should be the absolute peak of a defender’s career.
His time with Red Star and his exposure to Europe’s best in the Champions League should hold him in good stead too, and his name should be at least familiar to any suitors looking for players with both international and continental experience.
Those are selling points for any club.
The quality of Al Hilal’s squad should not be underestimated either. It is at least on par with Red Star boasting talent from both Europe and Asia. All up, it is a squad capable of winning 2019’s Asian Champions League.
Coached by Jorge Jesus, Al Hilal can call upon former Swansea City striker Bafetimbi Gomis, Peru international Andre Carillo – who Socceroos fans should be more than familiar with – and Asian superstars Omar Abdulrahman and Omar Khribin.
A number of Saudi internationals feature too in Al Hilal’s squad, including Salem Al Dawsari, Yasser Al-Shahrani and Salman Al-Faraj, a feature that will prove beneficial come World Cup qualifying time.
Playing in such a squad and with the benefit of continental football – in the midst of a regional opponent, no less – it is difficult to see Socceroos boss Graham Arnold taking exception to Degenek’s time in the gulf.
The manager is on record about the move but was coy in his assessment of it, preferring the player to remain where he was but seeming to acknowledge the appeal of the transfer.
To trade in consistency in familiar surrounds, particularly for a national team regular, is always bound to be a gamble but this is one worth taking, in more ways than one. Time will be the ultimate judge of whether it proves worthwhile.