It is no longer enough to have hosted the Spanish Super Cup in Riyadh for three years at a rate of 40 million euros per edition – and in which the news was that women could enter the stadium and mix with men. Nor is the purchase of entire clubs in top-level leagues like Newcastle enough. Saudi Arabia wants to compete with the majors and turn its league into a world benchmark. In Europe, meanwhile, many feel the threat (as they already felt in the US with the professional golf circuit).
Saudi Arabia accused of killing hundreds of migrants trying to cross its border
This week, to the relief of many, Saudi Arabia closed the transfer market. Trying to downplay the large number of players who have left European leagues, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has said that these moves “are not a danger.” “We saw a similar approach in China, which bought players at the end of their careers by offering them a lot of money. It is not the right way to do it,” he recently stated in an interview with L’Equipe. Many of them, however, are far from the 38 years of Cristiano Ronaldo, the first major world star to sign for a Saudi club in December of last year.
Other superstars such as Karim Benzema and Neymar have joined Ronaldo’s arrival this summer. Others have escaped him, among them Leo Messi who, according to several media outlets, rejected 400 million dollars per season in what would have been the most lucrative contract in the history of football; and Kylian Mbappé – the Al Hilal team offered 300 million for the signing. Messi has gone to play in the US, but signed a contract for more than 22 million euros in three years as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia.
Other top-level players have also arrived in the country such as N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea, 30 years old), Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City, 29 years old), Franck Kessié (Barça, 27 years old), Kalidou Koulibaly (Chelsea, 32 years old); and Gabri Veiga (Celta de Vigo, 21 years old).
In total, the Saudi Arabian league has spent 938 million euros this summer market, according to the specialized portal Transfermarkt. Only the almighty Premier League, the main league competition by revenue, has surpassed the Saudis this summer. It is more than double what the 20 Spanish first division clubs have spent on the purchase of players. Added to this is how they have made significant outlays on coaches. The most famous case has been that of Roberto Mancini. The coach stopped being the Italian coach – a country that is the current European champion – to sign for Saudi Arabia.
“The fact that they are building a balance of power with European football, just as with golf and the PGA, shows that the Saudis will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives,” Jean-Baptiste Guégan, tells elDiario.es, specialist in the geopolitics of sport and author of several books on the subject. After creating a parallel professional golf circuit that rivaled the American one, both organizations reached an association agreement this summer. The senior managers of the American PGA league have even had to give explanations to the US Congress for this association and have defended that it was a matter of “survival.”
While for some teams Saudi Arabia seems to be an opportunity to sell players they don’t want or recover a lot of money by freeing themselves from high salaries, for others it becomes a threat and additional source of competition, says Guégan: “In any case, it reflects the fragility of European football in the face of external competition, its difficulties in organizing and having a common response. Even the Premier League, the leader in Europe, is concerned to see its squad weakened by the late closure of the Saudi market.”
In addition to the signings, another crucial summer reform has transformed the Saudi league: the privatization of the clubs and their conversion into companies (they were traditionally controlled by the Ministry of Sports). Four of them – Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, Neymar’s Al Hilal, Benzema’s Al Ittihad and Gabri Veiga’s Al Ahli – have been acquired by the Public Investment Fund, a public fund led directly by the crown prince, Mohamed bin Salmán, to economically transform the country. These four teams are the ones that have made the main signings.
Even the business operation that has dominated the news of the last week, the Saudi entry into Telefónica, has an indirect link with football. The Spanish telecom company has the rights to more than half of the LaLiga matches in Spain, as well as European competitions after having made million-dollar payments in recent years.
“The objective is political, but also sporting. It is a true turning point in terms of resources mobilized (several billion euros), the ambition deployed and its alignment with the modernization and opening project of the Vision 2030 program,” says Guégan. “It is a medium-long term strategy with underestimated consequences for European football leagues beyond the German Bundesliga and the English Premier League, which are much more prepared and aware of their fragilities,” he adds.
Pep Guardiola, coach of Manchester City, current Premier League champion, has also spoken out about Bin Salmán’s movements: “Saudi Arabia has completely changed the market. When Cristiano was the first, no one thought that so many top-level players would play in the Saudi league. It is not a threat, it is a reality. “They want to create a strong league and they can do it.”
Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool coach, has in turn expressed his concern: “UEFA should pay attention [a lo que está pasando] because we have to protect the game. I don’t know where it will lead, but it seems more like a threat or concern and I don’t see how we can deny it right now. “We have to ensure that the European leagues remain as strong as ever and we have to change and adapt laws.”
Among the players, there have been few who have raised their voices against this phenomenon. One of them has been the Real Madrid player and former German national team player Toni Kroos. “Everything revolves around money, it is a decision against football,” he noted a few days ago in Sports Illustrated. “It’s starting to get tough for the football we all know and love,” he said. It contrasts with the statements made by former Liverpool player Jordan Henderson, another of the Saudi league signings. “I see it as positive to play in Arabia,” said the player in an interview, who in the past has been involved in campaigns against discrimination against the LGTBI community with gestures such as playing with rainbow laces. He now assures that “what he would not do is disrespect the religion and culture of Saudi Arabia.”
“By involving both the Public Investment Fund and Aramco, Mohamed bin Salmán takes control of the championship from a distance. “Apparently it is liberal and guided by economic decisions, but it is really a way of directing and channeling the championship strategy in a controlled, proactive and direct way without giving the impression of a nationalized championship,” says the French expert, who adds that this “It is no longer the same game.”
“The risks of being challenged for state money increase. It is no longer a market economy and the balance of power is distorted. It will take time to settle the situation and for an attempt at regulation to be made. “We are witnessing a globalization of soccer and a change in the center of gravity of world soccer for the benefit of the Persian Gulf, but not only that, the US MLS is also a turning point,” he says.
One of the main problems that Guégan highlights is “the confused fascination of the media with the actions of Saudi Arabia.” “The Saudi soap opera suits them because of its excesses and recurrence. It gets people talking and reacting, thereby creating attention and a growing audience. However, that does not facilitate a reasonable and critical approach,” he explains.
National cohesion and human rights
As Bin Salman led the transformation of Saudi football, the special criminal court sentenced a 54-year-old man to death for his activity on Twitter and YouTube, according to Human Rights Watch. So far this year, the Government has executed 100 people. In 2022 the authorities killed 196, three times more than the previous year and seven times more than in 2020. Among those executed this year are three people who resisted forced displacement to make way for the construction of the futuristic city of NEOM, a personal project of Bin Salmán.
The country has also recently been accused of killing hundreds of migrants trying to cross the border from Yemen by shooting them and using explosives. In terms of equality, in 2022 Saudi Arabia passed a law that was not previously codified and that allows the already existing discrimination of women through male guardianship.
In this sense, Guégan believes that the players who go to Saudi Arabia “must have certain scruples about the authoritarian nature of the regime, its responsibility as one of the most polluting states in the world and one of the least respectful of human rights, women’s rights and minority rights. “That said, it is easy to always and only ask athletes to take up causes where Western companies or our governments do not show the same level of awareness and responsibility,” he adds.
“For decades, the country’s leaders tried to avoid foreign attention. “They preferred to discreetly maintain the political alliance with the United States, obtain money from oil and run a religious state that was politically withdrawn in on itself and did not do much to build its international image, apart from the great influence it exerted in the Islamic world,” he tells elDiario. .es Justin Scheck, author of ‘Blood and oil: Mohamed bin Salmán’s relentless fight for world power’ (Península).
“Now, Bin Salman is trying to turn Saudi Arabia into a force in popular culture, but the basic structure of an absolute monarchy in which people’s rights are granted or taken away by a single man, rather than by a Constitution or government institution, it is maintained,” explains Scheck.
Guégan also highlights the internal role of this strategy. “The objective is to use football as tools in terms of influence, image and nation brand, as well as national pride and cohesion, what we call nation-building“, says. “Sport is a strategic investment sector because it allows us to change the way Saudi Arabia is portrayed in public opinion and control its narrative. This can make people forget the criticism of human rights, the war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi or the fate of migrants at the Saudi borders,” he assures.
Scheck believes that behind the fight for control of football there is a regional geopolitical struggle: “There is some competition with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in investments in football, but Saudi Arabia is the only one of the three big enough to have a domestic league. that can bring in top-level players and offer competition on that scale.”