Photo credit, Reuters
Brazilian footballer Neymar was one of the most high-profile signings for a Saudi club during the latest transfer window.
Article informationAuthor, Pooria JaferehRole, BBC Persian
6 hours ago
Football clubs around the world are familiar with the summer transfer window in Europe, when rival clubs try to poach players. But this year, an additional threat has been added beyond the continent: Saudi Arabia.
Created in the late 1970s, the Saudi Pro League has made headlines in recent months thanks to an aggressive talent acquisition policy. During this year’s transfer window, Saudi clubs spent almost $1 billion to lure top players to the Arabian Peninsula. Only English clubs have spent more money during this period.
And this figure only represents the sums paid to the clubs – it does not include the staggering salaries paid to the players themselves.
According to Carlo Nohra, director of operations of the Saudi Pro League, this will not be a one-off stunt. He says the Saudi government is committed to financially supporting the league until it achieves its goal of becoming one of the best leagues in the world in terms of revenue and quality.
“What you see is simply the Saudi Pro League doing what other leagues had to do. We have joined these ranks and we are doing whatever it takes to improve the quality on the field,” said Nora to the Reuters news agency.
The list of poached players includes Neymar, the Brazilian striker who a few years ago became the most expensive player in football history when French club PSG paid $242 million for his services. with Spanish giants Barcelona.
Al-Hilal, a club based in Riyadh, paid $98 million for the Brazilian, according to BBC Sport.
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French striker Karim Benzema left Real Madrid for an annual salary of $200 million to Al-Ittihad.
Other notable signings include Algerian Rihad Mahrez, who just won the UEFA Champions League with English club Manchester City, and Frenchman Karim Benzema, current holder of the most prestigious Balon d’Or individual award in the world of football.
The Saudis had already created a shock wave at the start of the year, when Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo left English club Manchester United for Al-Nassr, a Riyadh club which reportedly offered him a two-and-a-half year contract. worth around $400 million.
Four clubs – Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad – made most of the recruitments. They are owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has total assets estimated at $776 billion and is controlled by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman.
The dream of a World Cup
But why do Saudi clubs pump money into players and clubs?
This is part of a strategy that goes beyond raising the profile and standard of football in the country. In 2016, Saudi Arabia launched Vision 2030, a government investment program aimed specifically at diversifying its economy, which is still heavily dependent on oil revenues.
Sport is a particular area of interest – the country has its own Formula 1 Grand Prix, is a major shareholder in the Professional Golf Association (PGA) and will even host the 2029 Asian Winter Games at a resort ski under construction in the middle of the desert. But this investment goes beyond the development of the leisure and entertainment industry for the benefit of a population mainly aged under 40.
Photo credit, Reuters
The signing of Ronaldo by Al-Nassr in January 2023 was the start of a Saudi buying frenzy.
Saudi Arabia is also interested in how sport can be used to improve the image of a country with a poor human rights record. Other countries have taken a similar approach: neighbors the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have invested heavily in the sport, taking control of Manchester City and PSG respectively.
In 2022, the Qataris also hosted the FIFA Men’s World Cup, the first time the competition was held in a Middle Eastern country and a Muslim country. The Saudis have expressed a desire to do the same in the future. Saudi Arabia has also made inroads abroad, taking control of English club Newcastle United in 2021. But unlike its neighbors, it is now investing heavily in its own country.
This is not the first time that a country has tried to steal Europe’s spotlight. In 2016 and 2017, Chinese clubs, several of which were linked to the real estate sector, signed a series of high-profile European players. But the experiment ended in spectacular failure a few years later, following the covid-19 pandemic.
Is Saudi Arabia likely to suffer the same fate as China or can it compete with Europe?
Economist Stefan Legge, who specializes in football financing, is rather skeptical about this. He believes Europe still has a huge advantage when it comes to attracting the interest of players and fans around the world. “So far, the only thing that encourages players to settle in Saudi Arabia is money. Prestigious clubs and competitions are built over decades,” explains Mr. Legge.
“Saudi Arabia will only be able to build an interesting championship by demonstrating great longevity, sustained investment and excellent management.
Photo credit, Getty Images
In 2021, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia acquired English club Newcastle United
Writer Samindra Kunti suggests that if Saudi Arabia wants to make its league more attractive, it will need to bring in younger players: “Benzema, Ronaldo and Neymar are stars, but at the end of the day, they are way beyond the retirement age.
Kunti adds that Europe also has the Uefa Champions League, the strongest and richest club competition in the world. “At the end of the day, it’s Europe that holds the upper hand… It’s the club competition that all the players want to win, where all the big stars shine,” he explains. “It’s a real commercial juggernaut and it’s hard to see Saudi Arabia opposing it.
Critics have called the Saudi investment a “sport whitewash” – designed to improve the country’s reputation over human rights abuses, such as the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The United States accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of approving the killing, but Saudi Arabia denied he was involved, instead placing the blame on “rogue government agents.”
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is behind the country’s investment in sports.
However, some experts believe that image and reputation management is not the only reason behind Saudi Arabia’s strategy. “Across the world, nations are using sport and entertainment as a political tool to project their soft power,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economics at Skema Business School in Paris.
“This is a competition between nations to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. Britain, the United States, France, India and so many other countries have put implemented this policy. Today, the Saudis are doing the same,” he adds.
Additional reporting by Fernando Duarte