Saudi soccer: Good for you

Alaa Abdel-Ghani , Tuesday 12 Sep 2023

The pulling in by the Kingdom of so many big football names has captivated the sporting world with a mix of curiosity, bemusement and scepticism. The bottom line, though: Saudi Arabian clubs have as much right to purchase players as any other league, writes Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Saudi Arabian clubs

 

Cristiano Ronaldo started the proverbial ball rolling, and it hasn’t stopped since.

After Ronaldo, one of the greatest football players who ever lived, signed on the dotted line for Al- Nassr in January, what followed was an extraordinary Saudi summer spending spree. The scope and speed of this blitz to corral some of soccer’s biggest stars has been positively breath-taking. There has never been anything quite like it.

It turned out Ronaldo was just the start; his was a harbinger of things to come. Once it snagged CR7, the Saudi Pro League never looked back – and hasn’t looked the same since.

Five months after the blockbuster Ronaldo deal, reportedly worth $200 million a year, Real Madrid striker and current Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema jumped to Al-Ittihad.

In quick succession, the league sucked in – take a deep breath – N’Golo Kante, Allan Saint-Maximin, Riyad Mahrez, Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy, Ruben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, Fabinho, Marcelo Brozović, Sadio Mane, Jordan Henderson, Neymar, Yassine Bounou, Aymeric Laporte and Georginio Wijnaldum.

All told, over 80 players made the switch to Saudi Arabia. The exodus could probably have gone further had the transfer window in the Kingdom not shut on 7 September.

The Saudi magnet did not attract just players. Former Aston Villa boss and Liverpool icon Steven Gerrard is managing Al-Ettifaq this season, while another Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler was hired as coach of Al-Qadisiyah. And Italian Roberto Mancini is the new head coach of the Saudi national football team.

It has been a shopping spectacle by a lesser-known league never seen before in football. The leagues of China, the US, Japan, and other Gulf states have at various points in time made headlines for picking up high-profile names but none compare to this year’s immediate attempt by Saudi Arabia to emerge as a major football capital.

If the year 2023 will long be remembered for its sizzling summer, the hottest spot on the globe must have been KSA.

To put it in context, the Saudi Pro League spent just over $1 billion on players this year while the Premier League splashed out $2.94 billion. Like comparing apples and skyscrapers, until you know the Pro League was fourth in the world in spending, behind only England, France’s Ligue 1 and Spain’s La Liga.

Saudi Arabia is not only the new home of some of football’s biggest stars. Over the past few years, it has spent lavishly on prestigious international sports events. From chess championships to tennis to the world’s richest horse-racing event, the oil-rich nation has invested billions across the sporting world.

The Kingdom’s sports portfolio includes a Formula One Grand Prix, several heavyweight boxing showdowns, massive investments in esports and gaming, perhaps purchasing WWE, the world’s largest wrestling organisation, and golf (not just any golf but LIV Golf which is offering the richest golf tournaments in history following its shock merger this year with the venerable US PGA Tour).

But it is football, the world’s most popular sport, where Saudi Arabia has registered the most seismic activity.

What makes Saudi Arabia stand head and shoulders above most world football leagues is its Public Investment Fund (PIF), more or less a sovereign wealth fund that announced in June this year that four top Saudi clubs, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli, had become virtual companies.

The PIF takeover effectively nationalises the clubs and increases their spending power, allowing them to pay vastly increased transfer fees.

PIF certainly has the money, $776 billion of it, making it among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world.

If that weren’t enough, unlike the Premier League and other European teams, Saudi clubs are not bound by UEFA’s rules on spending, meaning there is no limit to the salaries the PIF can offer to lure top players.

The appropriation is also a priority under the Vision 2030 national development policy promoted by the Kingdom, specifically Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. The master plan of Vision 2023 aims to reduce Saudi economic dependence on oil (even though it is the power of the petro dollar that pays for these footballers and mega sports events).

At any rate, facing this mammoth Saudi Arabian ambition to become a major force in world soccer, most other countries, even its wealthy Gulf neighbours, can only play catch-up.

The UAE has Manchester City and Qatar PSG but Saudi Arabia has taken over not just Newscastle, now considered the wealthiest club in the Premier League, but a lot more. Teams in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have signed big-name players in the past but do not have the fanbase of their big Saudi rivals or the same economic power.

Heavy price

All this Saudi financial firepower comes with a heavy price, and that doesn’t mean just the money it has doled out.

Saudi Arabia must also deal with the criticism that its momentous scale of sports investments is “sportswashing,” using sports to distract the international community from what is claimed to be human rights violations. The accusation is that Saudi Arabia is always trying to change the subject – and its image - by hosting mega sports events, bagging big-name athletes or owning Western sports franchises.

The problem with that argument is that practically no country is innocent of human rights violations. For instance, it is estimated that there are 136,000 modern slaves in Britain, with 41 per cent of them being children. Isn’t that a human rights violation?

America lives with its constant battle with racism. Its 2003 invasion of Iraq and aftermath which killed reportedly one million people was launched under a false pretext. Aren’t these human rights violations?

Human rights organisations have tried to put pressure on international sporting bodies that have allowed their competitions to take place in countries that reportedly violate human rights. They haven’t been successful, and the reason is usually double standards.

For decades, embarrassing flip-flops have been all over the place. Nazi Germany held an Olympics. China has been accused of possible genocide against the Uyghur population. It held an Olympics. Russia is accused of brutally silencing its critics. It held a World Cup. Qatar was accused of mistreating its immigrant workers. It held the last World Cup.

How did they get away with it? Because when placing a moral halo on the heads of Western democracies, it can be asked why they are not called out as sportswashers for their own human rights breaches.

Who decides who is a sportswasher? And on what basis? The decision-making is not principled. It shows a certain amount of inconsistency and hypocrisy. Many countries hold their noses over human rights records, when the price is right.

In other words, it would be near impossible to find a football fan, save the most extreme, who refused to watch the Qatar World Cup because of accusations the Gulf state mistreated its migrant workers who built the stadiums. Or to find somebody, save the most extreme, who stopped being a supporter of ex-Liverpudlian Henderson, an outspoken advocate of LGBTQ+ rights, because he went to play in a country where sexual deviations are banned (Henderson has since apologised for letting the LGBTQ+ crowd down).

For those who dared to go for the Saudi riches, it is a lose-lose proposition. Harry Kane can go to Bayern Munich, Lionel Messi to Inter Miami and Jude Bellingham to Real Madrid and not an eyebrow is raised in protest. But woe to any one of them if they had gone to Saudi Arabia. They would have been dragged over the coals, first because of going for the money… then raked over the coals back the other way for going to play in a country that is perceived in some quarters to violate human rights.

It is presumptuous and troubling to begin selectively applying sportswashing to some countries while ignoring it in others. Critics should not abrogate themselves of blame for something their own countries might also be doing.

The truth is that whenever countries are labelled as being sportswashers, the identity of both the accuser, as much as the accused, is telling.

There is also the cultural lens which must be looked into. A country that bars same-sex relationships might be viewed as a violator of human rights but not so elsewhere.

Much recent media attention has been on athletes’ willingness to compromise moral ground to gain financially. While it’s true that those with a greater platform might have a larger social responsibility to speak out on human rights issues, there is no legal obligation for athletes to do so, nor should there be.

Of course, the irony is that whenever Saudi Arabia signs up a vaunted footballer, it draws attention from Western reporters to everything but the deal. There must be, at the very least, that ubiquitous paragraph at the end of the story about sportswashing.

No matter that the Kingdom has transformed dramatically. Women now drive and do not need to cover themselves up on the streets. It reopened cinemas and allowed concerts and international entertainment events to be held after being banned for 30 years. Restaurants, cafes and workplaces are now mixed. Businesses now have the freedom to close during the prayer time or remain open.

The fierce debate between opponents and proponents on Saudi liberalism and modernism - even defining the terms is problematic in Saudi Arabia - is left for another day. What can be said is that clearly, Saudi Arabia is opening up. In Western eyes it could move a lot faster. But it has moved remarkably fast in the context of its history.

And let’s face it, the Kingdom is modernising, if you will, at a time when some Western capitals are still debating who’s a man and who’s a woman, an issue that was long settled by Adam and Eve.

But because the morality police are never satisfied, let’s get the big, fat elephant out of the room: Saudi Arabia has Jamal Khashoggi, the war in Yemen, freedom of speech, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights, all the way back to 9/11.

This article has no intention of defending Saudi Arabia or glossing over its record. Riyadh can take care of itself and is in no need of anybody speaking on its behalf, and certainly not in a story which is devoted basically to football.

Why, after all, interject politics when the subject is about sports?

There was a time once upon a time when politics was put over there and sports over here and between them the Grand Canyon. Today, however, there are so many political overtones in World Cups and in Olympic Games that it’s all too easy to take your eye off the ball. But everything has a limit. Most people like their sports and their politics, just like their macaroni and pancakes, but not at the same time.

Money screams

In football, which is a billion-dollar industry, money talks. In Saudi Arabia, which has one-fifth of the world’s total oil reserves, the second largest in the world, money screams. And if you have it, flaunt it.

The Kingdom does not need to apologise that it has money to spend. And the foreigners who are now playing football there should not be made to feel embarrassed or feel they must say sorry about having gone there.

Saudi investment in sports in general is as audacious as it is ambitious – and is absolutely within bounds.

Ultimately, pay and grab is what the top European leagues have been doing to clubs at home and abroad for years.

Yet, there’s this thing about Arab Gulf wealth that some people can’t stand. Call it xenophobia, Islamophobia, Arabian money is their kryptonite.

Saudi Arabia’s target is that the league will be in the world’s top 10 by 2030 in terms of revenue generated, and maybe even talent-wise. The country is employing its soft power to turn the Saudi Pro League into a brand, from a fad to a trend, from a league football followers know to a league everybody knows. It has a long, long way to go to reach the fame and name of Barbie, Apple and Taylor Swift but you get the picture.

Want to be a brand? Why not get a ready-made brand to kick-start the process? Ronaldo reaches half a billion followers across social media. So being one of the most followed people in the world, he can command the world’s attention not just on himself but where he is playing.

Ronaldo’s move at 37 to Saudi Arabia after conquering European lands is not without precedent. Many senior citizen stars nearing the end of their careers opt for leagues of lesser strength, and where the money is. The great Brazilian Pele started the trend, convinced to come out of retirement and signing in 1975 for the New York Cosmos at age 34 to help transform the sport of soccer in North America.

What’s new these days is the fact that the PIF’s money has also lured some players away from Europe’s top leagues while still in their prime. So it’s not really The Old Timers League.

The case that the players went to Saudi Arabia just for the money is moot. Of course, money is a central theme but it’s not everything. Every player worth his jersey wants to play in the Manchester Uniteds and Barcelonas of this world. Most European players want to remain in Europe, the powerhouse continent of world football.

That will not necessarily allay the fears of many. There is little suggestion Saudi Arabia’s spectacular spending will end. Their league officials say they’re just getting started. They failed to reel in Mohamed Salah and earlier, Messi and Kylian Mbappe, but there’s always next time.

European teams may be struggling to come to terms with Saudi Arabian clubs moving for some of their biggest names; some are interpreting the push as effectively buying up an entire sport.

That’s a stretch but the Saudi Pro League certainly poses a legitimate challenge to the established world order of football. What started out as Ronaldo becoming a one-off signing quickly turned into Ronaldo the pied piper of stars and their shock deals, a spectacular shift in power that the Kingdom’s investment in football is bringing about.  

The wages that the Saudi clubs are paying are so in the stratosphere, many argue, that the general consensus is that competing with the seemingly limitless funds from Saudi Arabia will become a problem for European football sooner rather than later.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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