Karim Benzema has signed for Saudi Pro-League team Al-Ittihad. A simple statement in a summer transfer window and one that, on the face of it, has all the hallmarks for an ageing European star leaving the content for one final payday.
But the reality is that this, and the other big-name acquisitions that are about to follow him into the country, actually mark a serious power shift within the global footballing market. One that, whether people like it or not, is specifically designed to change the sport forever.
This is how Saudi Arabia is secretly conquering football.
On November 22, the Saudi Arabian national team came from a goal behind to beat the eventual world champions Argentina. It was, unarguably, one of the most shocking results in the entire history of the World Cup and, under normal circumstances, would have represented the biggest thing to happen to Saudi football for a generation. However it held that status for barely six weeks.
A mere 48 days later, Cristiano Ronaldo tore up his contract at Manchsester United, and was unveiled as the newest signing for Al-Nassr. He did so, though, to an online chorus of laughs and derision. Here was one of football's best ever players, still thinking himself an elite athlete, going to play in the 68th biggest league in the world.
But as we’ll see this summer, Ronaldo was merely the first major name in what is designed to be an explosive and disruptive period of growth for football in Saudi Arabia. One that’s now financed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, and could thus start to challenge the top leagues in Europe almost immediately.
Ronaldo is already there. Benzama, the reigning Ballon d’Or holder is now set to join him. Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante has also reportedly signed a deal within in the league. Wilfried Zaha looks to be leaving Crystal Palace and has a Saudi offer on the table. Roberto Firminho and Sergio Busquets, free agents after leaving Liverpool and Barcelona respectively, have allegedly been approached. Luka Modric, Pepe, and Sergio Ramons have all held talks on joining former team-mate Ronaldo. Neymar’s representatives have spoken to a number of clubs in the league. Son Heung-min and Ilkay Gundogan apparently both consider it a viable option if their next move can’t guarantee them Champions League football. The list goes on and on, and the European season has barely come to an end.
And then, there’s Lionel Messi.
Still regarded as the greatest player in the world by some, and forever considered the greatest player who ever lived by many, the Argentinian isn’t just in bed with Saudi Arabia, he’s firmly under the covers counting his money with a torch.
Signed by the nation’s sovereign wealth fund to be a global ambassador for the country itself, Messi’s relationship with both the management and fans of Paris Saint-Germain reached the point of no return over a trip he made to the country. Failing to seek permission from his manager, and in the wake of an embarrassing home defeat, his social media was flooded with carefully choreographed holiday snaps in Riyadh while he was supposed to be at training.
If you’re wondering how a player with his alleged dedication and professionalism thought this was somehow okay, then keep in mind that whatever astronomical sum he was receiving from his club, was dwarfed by the one he was receiving from his hosts. He took that trip, because it would have been financially stupid not to. The same logic they were hoping would apply to him this very summer, with an alleged $1.9 billion dollar contract offered to play his football there next season.
But despite missing out on Messi to MLS, the Saudi Pro League has aims to be one of the top 10 biggest leagues in the world, and a genuine attraction for the game's top players and managers, all within the next few years.
But where we’ve seen this before with ageing superstars squeezing the last of their careers in MLS, or players still in their prime opting to take life-changing money from a move to the Chinese league, this is different.
It’s on a whole other scale entirely, and all because of how it’s funded.
Throughout the rest of the world, football clubs are private enterprises. By and large they need to generate money in order to be able to spend it, or else get lumbered with the sort of debt that ultimately sees things go very, very wrong for them. Even in the US where the teams are owned by the league, MLS still has to generate the bulk of the money that goes into buying players or expanding clubs, effectively keeping it within its means.
But in May, that all changed for the Saudi League, when the division’s 'Big Four' – Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, Al Ahli, and Al Hilal – were all collectively taken over by the country’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF. This means that they now have access to near-limitless financial resources, and are already able to offer wages way in excess of all but the very top European clubs. The idea being that by using the country’s near bottomless pit of development money to bring in some of football’s biggest names, they immediately improve both the quality and status of the league.
This, of course, creates a two-tier league of financial disparity between these four clubs and the rest of the division, but there isn’t a major league in the world where that hasn’t just happened naturally.
If the name PIF rings a bell to you though then, it should, it’s the state-owned sovereign wealth fund that’s been behind the Newcastle United takeover and, more recently, changed the entire face of golf forever by merging its LIV venture with that of the PGA and DP World Tour. It’s not an organistion that invests in something, without ambitions to dominate it.
Despite what sections of newspapers they more commonly appear in though, they’re not a sporting investment operation. Huge stakes have been acquired in Disney, Starbucks, WWE, Uber, and countless others, as it works on its mission to diversify the country’s portfolio away from simply just being an oil state and rebrand Saudi Arabia’s image on a world stage.
And this is where the controversy starts.
The Saudi Arabian human rights record should appall anyone who takes the time to learn about it.
Homosexuality is considered a crime in the country and is punishable by deportation, life imprisonment, public flogging, and even death. Women’s rights, while improving, are still severely restricted, and the country is listed as one of the worst in the world for its attitudes on civil liberty and freedom of speech. In 2023 alone, the country has already broken its record for the number of arrests made over political activism and dissent towards the government.
While there is always an argument over how much relevance this should have to the sporting institutions its state-backed wealth fund has its tendrils in - and indeed, there are almost no ownership groups or investment funds who are entirely unproblematic – the difference here is that the obfuscation is laregly the point.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project is the jewel in the crown of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s modernisation revolution. He wants to secure the country’s future as a major player on the world stage by not only fostering enormous investment in a wide range of national enterprises, but by making it a popular tourist destination with visitors from the west.
To do both of these things, it needs to fit in with European and American ideologies, as well routinely showcasing that it's culturally on a similar wavelength.
Thus the country’s wealth is pumped into Disney, it’s pumped into Starbucks, it’s pumped into golf, it’s pumped into WWE, and it’s pumped, in increasing volumes, into football. Investing in teams like Newcastle gives them a seat at the Premier League table, sure, but having a league that’s exported around the world because it's home to some of the biggest players in the sport is infinitely more valuable.
Both in terms of public perception and economic enterprise, the advantages to this on a global scale are obvious. But the story here that often goes unreported is the local one. Saudi Arabia has a booming population that’s increasingly young, digitally and culturally switched on, and that has a serious appetite for the entertainment it sees from the West. It’s also one that, as the spotlight on the nation is intensified, is growing bolder in voicing its disqueit over the obvious social disparities it sees between what rights they have, and what the rest of the world enjoys.
It might sound incredibly over-simplified, but investing billions into giving the country one of the best football leagues in the world, where fans can see players like Messi, Ronaldo, and Benzema every single week is, in part, designed to placate some of this discontent. And, just like hosting WWE shows, an F1 Grand Prix, and opening a Six Flags amusement park, it’ll work.
It’s also seen as being a major boost to the country’s hopes of hosting one of the next World Cups. The league’s biggest club, Al-Ittihad, commands an average attendance of over 40,000 fans, but the rest of the division regularly sees four figures through the gates despite having capacity for five. Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Al-Nassr took their average attendance from around 7,000 to nearly 20,000, and the hope is that by adding global talent throughout the league, every other club can see something similar.
After the awards to Russia and Qatar, FIFA will undoubtedly face major scrutiny over it’s next set of choices, and Saudi Arabia elevating its own domestic league to the point of global legitimacy offsets this enormously. From this, to public perception, to investment opportunities, to a worldwide national rebrand, the value to Saudi Arabia of attracting these top players goes way in excess of the undeniably enormous sums of money they’re going to be paying them.
And that’s money that will alter the transfer market in Europe irrevocably. All of a sudden players entering their final years who clubs might be reluctant to offer big wages to, have a possible market that offers resale value. Emerging clubs can even target sales of prize assets to the league, as a way to circumvent their own FFP rules.
While both the reality and the impact of this change will only be fully apparent in time one thing is already set in stone. This is football’s part in the biggest PR campaign in human history, and it’s one that will have both sporting and cultural repercussions across the planet.
Whether you call it modernisation, or sportswashing, or both, it isn’t a story that’s simply going to go away, and it’s one that every football fan will ultimately have a stake in. Saudi investment will undeniably change football for good – but whether that means it’s good for football is a different question entirely.
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