Saudi Arabia’s new investment plans match its ambition to be serious football power

Top names are headed towards the kingdom and that could inspire talented youngsters home and away to embrace the league

Cristiano Ronaldo has ushered in a new era for Saudi football since his move to Al Nassr. Reuters
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At Fulham, the team I support, the old-timers still talk with fondness of the 1976 season, when Bobby Moore, England’s World Cup winning captain, George Best, the ex-Manchester United genius, and Rodney Marsh, another wizard, all played for ‘the Whites’.

It was a deliberate policy of Fulham, to recruit players past their prime. At the peak of their powers, they would not have given Fulham a second glance. But now these were stars only too happy to strut their stuff if someone would have them, and pay them.

That’s exactly what they did, providing unbridled joy, displaying brilliant skill and providing rich entertainment. The goals were spectacular and there was the delightful, constantly replayed moment when Marsh tackled his team-mate Best, just for fun.

Of course the fans knew the trio were getting on but that didn’t matter: they were watching legends playing for their team. There was also serious method at work. Fulham won matches, the crowds rose from 10,000 to 21,000 and younger players were clamouring for the chance to play alongside the big names. Fulham became one of the hottest tickets in football.

Something similar is happening in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced that the country’s four largest clubs are to be acquired by PIF, Saudi’s sovereign wealth fund. Simultaneously, there is to be major investment in the wider football league, in other teams, and Europe’s most celebrated players are to be persuaded to sign.

Karim Benzema, the current Ballon d’Or holder, will soon join Cristiano Ronaldo in the kingdom. A deal is being finalised to take him to Al Ittihad.

Next on the list for the Saudi Pro League is Lionel Messi, who is being targeted by Al Hilal - among the 'Big Four' that also includes Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, and Al Ahli. The PIF will own 75 per cent of the clubs with the remaining 25 per cent controlled by a non-profit organisation. Four other Pro League clubs will receive a boost, with Saudi state-owned companies injecting substantial amounts of cash.

The idea is for Saudi Arabia to possess a highly competitive, high quality league, propelling it into the top 10 in the world. Currently, the Pro League is rated 58th in terms of quality, below the Scottish Premiership and above Italy’s third tier, Serie C.

Their plan is not to have a league comprised just of fading superstars (even Saudi Arabia with all its money has to accept it cannot prise away players whose ultimate aim is to play in, and win, the world’s leading club competition - the European Champions League).

They intend that rising homegrown and foreign youngsters will wish to join the legends, that the standard of domestic football at all levels will receive an uplift, that Saudi Arabia will be widely lauded as a serious footballing nation.

The Crown Prince is also seeking another spin-off, which is the promotion of sport and fitness in a nation that, like some other developed countries, suffers from high rates of diabetes, heart conditions and obesity.

The Saudi clubs, some of which already have high followings, will become a magnet for Saudi Arabia’s youth, contributing towards a vibrant, ‘feelgood’ economy.

With raised status, it is hoped, will come international recognition; Saudi Arabia could host the World Cup – an aspiration that followed Qatar hosting the first World Cup in the Arab world last year.

This push into top-class professional sport is not new. Saudi Arabia has dedicated $2 billion towards the creation of LIV, the ritzy, big money alternative golf tour to the long-established PGA circuit. The move has created considerable controversy in pro golf, with star names at loggerheads.

After a shaky beginning, there are signs of LIV gaining wider acceptance in the sport and settling down. There is even talk of the two tours seeking a rapprochement and working together.

Other clubs, not only Fulham, and other countries have gone down the same path, with varying results. Not so long ago, China was the place to go, but its league has fallen by the wayside.

The US, too, has long been a hunting ground for stars wanting to see out the remainder of their careers. While the MSL is now recognised as a major league and it is drawing bigger crowds and commanding increasing airtime, somehow it has never quite lived up to its razzmatazz and promise.

Under the Saudi system, beginning in 2023-24, each of the PIF-owned clubs can target a minimum of three world-renowned names. Because they share the same ownership, the league organisers can ensure a fair distribution of talent (like the draft system in the NFL), thus making their competition tight and attractive. Each big name brings with them their own fan base, media coverage and social media following.

Messi is expected to be offered around $400 million by Al Hilal, in addition to a separate contract to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia. Stand back for a flood of players, well-known managers, coaches and referees lining up to follow him, Benzema and Ronaldo.

Other players being mentioned include Neymar, Pepe, Luka Modric, Wilfried Zaha, N’Golo Kante, Adama Traore, Hugo Lloris, Alexis Sanchez and Roberto Firmino.

If nothing else, Saudi Arabia’s aspiration and largesse has suddenly caused a lot of footballing agents to rub their hands in anticipation of the coming months.

Chris Blackhurst is the author of ‘The World’s Biggest Cash Machine - Manchester United, the Glazers and the Struggle for Football’s Soul’ to be published by Macmillan in October.

Published: June 07, 2023, 2:58 AM