The Saudi Infuence. What's next?

On 22nd November 2022, just over a year ago, shockwaves were sent around the footballing world. Manchester United announced that Cristiano Ronaldo was to leave the club by mutual agreement with immediate effect. An explosive interview with Piers Morgan where Ronaldo criticised the head-coach, the owners and the club spelled the end to his second stint at the club. He was now without a home and speculation was rife about where he would go next. Real Madrid? Bayern Munich? A return home to Sporting CP? Earlier on that day, Saudi Arabia had just pulled off one of the World Cup’s greatest ever upsets in toppling Argentina.

It took Ronaldo until 31st December to announce his new club, Saudi team, Al Nassr. His announcement was met with shock, disappointment but also an acceptance. Sadly, we saw it for what it was. A legend of the game, an all-timer, who wasn’t wanted by Europe’s elite and had priced himself out of a romantic return to Sporting CP, deciding to cash in the biggest pay cheque he could find. And who could begrudge him of that? His move to Saudi Arabia was, however, seen as an outlier. A one off. Nothing else would come from this, surely? Fast forward 8 months and last year’s Ballon D’Or Winner, Karim Benzema, the most expensive footballer ever, Neymar, and even football’s humble hero, Ngolo Kane have been lured to Saudi Arabia. OK, now you’ve got our attention. Sometimes in life the intentions are laid bare in plain sight. Saudi Arabia would like a seat at the top table amongst the footballing elite. Just how far will they take this, and will they be successful?

To answer this question, let’s first look at why Saudi Arabia are doing all of this. Research into this will lead you to a vision that is being implemented by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. This vision is called Saudi 2030. Having amassed a fortune with an economy reliant on oil and gas, the ambition for Saudi Arabia is to diversify their economy. The strategy has been to aggressively invest in other sectors such as technology, healthcare and tourism. Most notably, they have invested heavily in sport. Saudi Arabia host an annual Formula One Grand Prix, stage some of the biggest boxing fights and have their own WWE event, “The Crown Jewel”. There are two sports, however, where their influence has caused quite the stir. Golf and football. To provide an insight into their venture into the golfing world I have enlisted the expertise of PGA Teaching Professional, Joe Grange. I asked Joe about the impact Saudi Arabia has had on golf and whether this would be lasting and could change the sport forever.

Joe wrote the following:

"Saudi Arabia made their inroads into golf by setting up their own tour, called LIV golf with the intention to entice the world’s best golfers from the traditional PGA tour. Since the announcement of LIV Golf, there was always an underlying question from the golfers. Who would play in this format, and would it ever attract the interest and engagement of an audience? When it was first introduced, it appeared to be tailormade (excuse the pun) for golfers who were at the latter stages of their career. This was the case until Cameron Smith caused a huge upset winning at the home of golf, St Andrews. A week later, Smith announced he was joining LIV. Suddenly a rising star had joined the movement, sending shockwaves round the golfing world.

So, would this movement take off? Only this year, there was controversy surrounding the USA Ryder Cup team. USA Ryder Cup golfer, Brooks Keopka, stated that all players had a “fair shot” at making the USA Ryder Cup team, yet only he, who played in the LIV tour, claimed one of the 12 spots. Evidently, playing in the Saudi LIV tour seemed to hamper the other American golfers who may have been selected onto the team.

How much further can Saudi Arabia take this? My opinion is that Saudi Arabia won’t ever succeed in their mission to take over the sporting industry. The LIV tour brought an exciting new format with teams and singles and lots of money on the line and having that alongside the traditional, prestigious PGA tour is where I see that slotting in. The significant financial packages on offer to golfers will always provide that temptation but the golf traditionalists will continue to reject the project."

 

So, we’ve looked at the impact Saudi Arabia have had on golf, now the eyes turn to football. Just how big a dent can Saudi Arabia put in the “global game”, and can they have a lasting impact? Let’s explore their approach so far and what the future might hold.

In January 2022, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia acquired a majority stake in Newcastle United. That was the start. This year, Saudi Arabia took it up a notch. One hell of a notch. In June 2023, it was announced that the four largest clubs in Saudi Arabia were to be owned and funded by the Public Investment Fund, effectively meaning they were being owned by the state of Saudi Arabia. The remit? Lure the biggest names in football to the Kingdom. By the end of the summer transfer window, Sky Sports reported that Saudi clubs had spent £701million on transfer fees, ranking second behind the behemoth that is the Premier League. Oh, and just for good measure, FIFA have recently announced that Saudi Arabia were the only bidder for the 2034 World Cup. The revolution is underway.

Focusing first on the players that have joined the Saudi Pro League and there are a whole host of huge names. Ronaldo, Neymar, Benzema, Kante, Mane, Koulibaly, Mahrez and Jordan Henderson to name a few. The bottom line is that it doesn’t appear Saudi Arabia will stop in their pursuit. Who’s next? Salah? Casemiro? Modric? I would be surprised if not one of these wasn’t playing in Saudi Arabia this time next year. To the casual onlooker the pull of Saudi Arabia looks too strong, too tempting and all the best players could end up moving there. But should fans be worried about losing their best players?

See, context is everything. And it’s crucial we look at the context surrounding these transfers. One thing that isn’t really spoken about is the lack of alternative suitors for any of the players above. Not a single European club would have paid the near £80m to sign Neymar, including his hefty wages too. In actual fact, Saudi’s interest has been somewhat welcomed by Premier League clubs who have often struggled to move players on. Liverpool, I doubt were too gutted about parting ways with Jordan Henderson and Fabinho for a combined £50million, especially given their age and performances last season. Chelsea willingly packed Koulibaly’s and Mendy’s bags, recouping £41million for the unwanted pair and it’s not inconceivable that Manchester United wouldn’t be teeing up Casemiro for a summer move as we speak. With Saudi Arabia joining the party, suddenly there’s a willing buyer and a solution. Roll up! Roll up! Come and get your Premier League veteran!

So, how have all these players settled in Saudi Arabia and are the teams better off for spending the money? Let’s look at the state of the Saudi Pro League.

As it stands the four clubs with Saudi PIF backing make up the top four. The top two, Al-Hilal and Al Nassr, historically the two biggest rivals in Saudi Arabia, are seven points clear of 3rd with the former unbeaten with 12 wins and 2 draws so far this season. That, I guess, is what happens when you let them sign Neymar, Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Yassine Bounou in one window. Both teams are well ahead of their goal tallies at this stage last season and the entertainment value has increased significantly.  How’s it going off the pitch? According to the WFS (World Football Summit), the Saudi league has seen a 650% increase in revenue in just the first month of this season and a 75% growth in the number of sponsors this season. Signing the world’s biggest stars generates hype and media attention, who’d have thought?

The shear speed of growth is incredibly impressive and the very fact I, like hundreds of others, have written an article on this emphasises that point. What does the future look like for the League? My issue is that a top league isn’t just the one that houses an assortment of the biggest names. The Premier League might be home to the European Champions, some of the biggest clubs and the best managers in the world, however it’s the strength of all 20 clubs that makes it what it is. Yes, even Burnley! The Premier League is valued for its huge competition. Luton holding Liverpool to a draw recently, Wolves beating Manchester City. The top teams, however infallible they may seem, are beatable by any team on any given day. The competitiveness, the passion of the fans and the quality on show in every game, makes the Premier League what it is.

Other leagues, too, have their own niches that make them what they are. La Liga is renowned for its high technical quality and stages El Classico. The Bundesliga is a frenzy for goals and wild-west football and Serie A is steeped in tradition with more storylines and plots each season than you can keep up with. The long-winded, laboured point I am making is a league’s attractiveness to fans cannot just be bought overnight. The Saudi Pro League has an all-star fantasy football team feel to it. You can just imagine watching a match and suddenly your Dad points to the screen; “Is that Sadio Mane? How good was he at Liverpool?”. Yesterday’s superstars putting on their last show. The last dance. You see goals and highlights of Ronaldo at Al-Nassr and whilst his ability is unquestionable, the level of competition, however, is. To get close to the top leagues, the competition must improve and that will take time.

One threat to European football I can see is the potential for a collaboration between two unlikely entities. One entity with cash to burn looking for prestige and relevancy comes across another with all the prestige you could want, desperately looking for cash. Saudi Pro League, let me introduce you to the European Super League. You didn’t think the European Super League had completely vanished did you? The three clubs who still remain “in” the European Super League are Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus, all of whom are feeling the pinch of competing with the “real super-league”, the Premier League. I think these clubs would be willing to entertain the idea of a collaboration with Saudi Arabia to increase their revenue. It’s at least a marriage of convenience if not a match made in heaven. It’s certainly one to keep an eye on for the future.

The conclusion of all of this is that Saudi Arabia has made remarkable strides in the last couple of years. To continue with such growth is of course even harder, as there will come a plateau. The model of buying top players towards the end of their careers is a short term one. Obviously, there will be a finite number of footballers each summer with the required star-power who are willing to come to Saudi Arabia. For all of the clamour around the summer signings, I see an acknowledgement from them that their days at the pinnacle of football are over and they achieved all they could. Younger, in-form players such as Pedro Neto, Kubo and Florian Wirtz have top European clubs chasing their signatures. If they have any ambition to achieve their goals in football, they’ll stay in Europe. They won’t move to Saudi Arabia next.

Are Saudi Arabia a genuine threat to football? I certainly don’t see them going anywhere and I can see more and more older players moving there in the years to come. However, elite clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and so on just have the tradition and history that money simply cannot buy and it’s for that reason alone that I don’t believe Saudi Arabia are a threat to the beautiful game.

 

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