Saudi Arabia has spent the summer chasing football’s biggest names with eye-watering large transfer fees and wages.
Soccer clubs, funded by the state’s sovereign investment fund, have pockets almost as deep as the oil wells that generate the nation’s riches.
Only clubs in the English Premier League have outspent the Saudis this year – investing $1.39 billion in new players compared to the $907 million outlay by the Saudis.
But, like the Chinese soccer boom kicking off in 2015, is the desert revolution about to crash and burn?
The Chinese plans to develop a world-beating national side quickly flopped. Like Saudi Arabia, clubs scoured the top European leagues for big-name players for the launch of the Chinese Super League.
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Large sums were invested in players who were winners to no avail. Chinese clubs won some trophies in Asia but registered little more than a nouveau riche sideshow in international competitions.
The government then raised concerns about the amounts the players were pocketing and introduced wage caps and tax penalties that effectively drove the players back to Europe.
The blueprint is practically the same in Saudi Arabia, but the whistle has only just blown to start the season.
The Saudi sovereign investment fund took over the pro league’s top four clubs in readiness to prime them with cash so they can compete on the same level or higher than Europe’s leading clubs.
The Saudis already have TV deals to promote their league with 130 countries.
Last Chance For Old Heroes
Soccer is the most popular sport in the kingdom, and in recent years, national and club teams have performed well at the World Cup and Asian Champions League.
However, that’s not the same as competing in the European Champions League or European Championships against clubs and national sides stacked with the world’s best players at the peak of their powers.
The players who have changed to Saudi Arabia are sadly approaching the end of their careers and no longer have the stamina or fitness to continue putting in stellar performances game after game, sometimes twice a week, in the Premier League or Bundesliga. Most are aged 30 or over.
In their short but illustrious careers, Saudi Arabia is regarded as the last chance to grab a bumper pay cheque.
The talent displayed in the desert includes Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the first to jump ship in Europe to collect a bumper payday in Saudi Arabia. His club, Al-Nassr, shelled out $219 million to take him to the Middle East and to make him the world’s highest-paid athlete.
Players Past Their Sell-By Dates
One of the all-time greats, Ronaldo is trousering a cool $213 million a season to grace the club with his silky talents.
But Ronaldo is well past his sell-by date for an English Premier League team at age 38. Fans can still glimpse flashes of his talent, but he isn’t the player he once was.
Other high-profile names winging their way to Saudi Arabia soccer teams include French striker Karim Benzema in a $107 million deal to Al-Ittihad, Senegal’s Sadio Mane to Al Nassr for a more reasonable $43.83 million transfer and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez to Al_Ahli for $32 million.
World-class stars like Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe rejected even more enormous sums to ply their trade elsewhere. Messi has settled in the US soccer league while Mbappe leads the line for Paris St Germain. However, he is rumoured to be kneading for the Bernabeu and Real Madrid at the end of the season.
However, Brazilian sensation Neymar signed for Al-HIlal for $100 million.
Sports Washing Allegations
Rather than bask in admiration and excitement at how the Saudi pro league is developing, the government faces accusations of sports washing.
Sports washing enhances the bad reputations of governments, companies, groups or individuals who want to improve their tarnished images by seemingly good acts.
In the Saudi case, critics raise the spectre of appalling human rights abuses, such as the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2018. The government’s treatment of political prisoners and poor handling of women’s rights are also questioned.
The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom only recently allowed women to watch soccer in a stadium (2018), travel overseas without a male guardian’s permission (2012) and drive a car (2018).
Soccer is not the first project undermined by sports-washing allegations.
Boxer Antony Joshua succumbed to the lure of a mighty £60 million pay cheque when he fought in the desert to retain his heavyweight belts.
That was in 2019.
The latest sports washing hullabaloo surrounds golf, where the Saudis have pulled off a deal to merge their pro tour with the Professional Golf Association’s (PGA) world tour.
Elsewhere, the Saudis have sponsored their first F1 grand prix and bought English Premier League club Newcastle United.
The next target is hosting the 2030 World Cup.
But wherever the Saudi money tree puts down new sporting routes, two age-old adages remain the same: When money talks, it generally wins, and everyone has a price for doing business.
Saudi Soccer FAQ
What is the Saudi Pro Soccer League?
The Saudi Pro Soccer League was formed in the 1976-77 season as the highest division in the country’s football competitions.
Which are the top four Saudi clubs?
Who was Jamal Khashoggi?
Jamal Khashoggi was a respected journalist and critic of the Saudi royal family and government. He was lured to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul and murdered. His body was dismembered and dumped and has not been found.
Will Saudi Arabia host the 2030 World Cup?
FIFA, the world’s governing football body, has yet to announce a host for the 2030 World Cup. However, a whistle-blower has revealed secret conversations between Greece and Egypt about a three-way hosting ticket with Riyadh. The Saudis have agreed to fund new stadiums and the cost of the finals if the tripartite deal is agreed.
What happened to the Chinese Super League?
Stay away fans sounded the death knell for the Chinese Super League. Fans stayed away from games, which had an average attendance of 25,000. As a result, sponsors dropped out, and clubs needed help to afford their enormous wage bills for foreign stars.
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