The world was in shock when Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Al Nassr in December last year, but little did we know that the Portuguese star’s move will only be the beginning of a huge player exodus to the Middle Eastern nation. Let’s explore the Saudi football phenomenon together!
Saudi Arabia’s Economic Diversification and Football’s Role
Saudi Arabia, a country heavily reliant on oil revenue, is looking to diversify its economy and secure its financial future. The Saudi government, through its sovereign wealth investment fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is investing in various industries to expand its economy. One area of focus is sports, particularly football. The country aims to build its own leisure and entertainment industry, tapping into the immense interest in football among its population, of which 70% is under 40 years old. This move is not only driven by economic considerations but also by the desire to increase tourism and raise Saudi Arabia’s global profile.
The Popularity of Football in Saudi Arabia
Football enjoys immense popularity in Saudi Arabia, as evidenced by the country’s passionate support during the 2022 World Cup in neighboring Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s national team even defeated eventual champions Argentina in the group stages, showcasing the talent and potential within the country. Recognizing the interest and passion for the sport, the rulers of Saudi Arabia have decided to capitalize on it by investing in football within their borders. Instead of allowing other entities to profit from their population’s love for football, they seek to create a self-sustaining football industry that keeps the money within the country and attracts visitors from around the world.
The Stars in Saudi Arabia
As mentioned before, Cristiano Ronaldo was the first global super star to move to Saudi Arabia, however his former teammate, current Balon d’or holder, Karim Benzema caused an equal amunt of hype. At the moment, Al-Ittihad doesn’t only employ Karim Benzema, but also former Chelsea midfielder, Ngolo Kante. Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech looks set to move to Al Nassr to join up with CR7 as well.
Saudi Arabia’s Geopolitical Objectives
While the economic and entertainment aspects are significant factors in Saudi Arabia’s investment in football, there are also geopolitical objectives at play. The country has been accused of “sportswashing” – using sports to divert attention from its poor human rights record. Organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices. By hosting major sporting events and investing in football, Saudi Arabia aims to improve its global image and project soft power. The country’s ambition to bid for the hosting rights of the 2030 World Cup, alongside Greece and Egypt, further demonstrates its desire for international recognition and influence.
Parallels with China’s Super League
The rise of Saudi Arabia’s football transfers draws parallels with China’s Super League, which experienced a surge in prominence in 2004. China’s government initiated the Super League to boost the country’s football development and national team performance. However, the Chinese government later imposed regulations and restrictions to control the outflow of money to foreign clubs. In the case of Saudi Arabia, their long-term vision and substantial financial resources indicate a more serious commitment to establishing a competitive football league. The ambition is not a mere “flash in the pan” but a sustained effort to elevate the Saudi Pro League to global prominence.
The Impact on European Clubs
The influx of Saudi Arabian investment in football transfers poses a potential threat to big European clubs. Saudi Arabian clubs have the financial power to sign any player they desire, as long as the player is willing to make the move. While many players at the peak of their careers may decline such offers, the allure of significant financial rewards can sway some. For example, Ruben Neves, a highly sought-after midfielder, decided to join Al-Hilal from Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers. This demonstrates the lucrative market that Saudi Arabia has created, providing serious competition for European clubs in the transfer market.
Is Saudi Arabia Helping European Clubs with Financial Fair Play?
The recent transfers involving Saudi Arabian clubs and Chelsea players have raised questions about Financial Fair Play regulations. Chelsea, having spent a significant amount in recent transfer windows, needed to balance their books and sell players. The sudden interest from Saudi Arabian clubs in acquiring Chelsea players, along with substantial financial offers, has led to speculation that this is a way for Chelsea to comply with Financial Fair Play requirements. However, it is important to note that the involvement of the PIF in various investment activities globally, including a private equity fund with ties to Chelsea, does not necessarily indicate a conflict of interest.
The Transfer Market Landscape and Potential Future Targets
The rise of football transfers to Saudi Arabia has transformed the transfer market landscape. Now, with every transfer discussion, Saudi Arabian clubs are mentioned as potential destinations for players. While some players may reject offers to move to Saudi Arabia, the country’s financial power and ambition make it an attractive option for many. The pursuit of Lionel Messi, who ultimately chose to join MLS side Inter Miami, and the rejection of Romelu Lukaku’s approach are examples of Saudi Arabian clubs targeting top talent. No player has been ruled out, and Saudi Arabia aims to attract 100 of the best foreign players to its league within the next five years.
The Vision for Saudi Arabian Football
Football experts believe that Saudi Arabia’s vision for its football industry extends beyond acquiring players at the twilight of their careers. The country has the infrastructure and potential to host major events like the World Cup, as demonstrated by Qatar’s successful hosting of the tournament. By attracting top talent, securing TV contracts, media coverage, and sponsorships, Saudi Arabia aims to create a sustainable and internationally recognized football league. The focus is not only on established players but also on nurturing young talent who can compete at the highest level.
The rise of football transfers to Saudi Arabia signifies the country’s ambition to diversify its economy and establish a thriving football industry. Through significant financial investments, Saudi Arabian clubs have attracted renowned players, posing a potential threat to big European clubs. While geopolitical objectives and concerns about human rights records are part of the conversation, the long-term vision and financial resources of Saudi Arabia suggest a sustained commitment to football development. The transfer market landscape has been reshaped, with Saudi Arabia emerging as a lucrative destination for players. As the country continues to pursue its goals, the impact on European clubs and the global football landscape will be closely watched.