With the news from the kingdom just coming in that the state has taken over the country’s big four Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Nassr, the question on everybody’s lips is: Will Saudi Arabia be the new footballing powerhouse?
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), currently owns Newcastle United, and despite some fans maintaining that it has no connection to the Saudi government, it is very clear to see that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS), the country’s leader is trying to impose his vision on Saudi sports. This vision called ‘Vision 2030’ is aimed at attracting tourism and investment into his country in preparation for the inevitable shift away from fossil fuels, which would leave them without their most dominant source of income.
Part of this vision is a bid to host the 2030 or, worst-case scenario, the 2034 World Cup. For their 2030 bid, they are already planning to buy and rebuild various stadiums in Greece and Egypt in an attempt to tie themselves to more respectable footballing countries which would legitimize their bid, especially if one of the countries would be on European soil. Of course, the lion’s share of games would be held on Saudi soil, with the regime probably pawning off the lowest entertainment group games to its two potential allies.
As with any World Cup bid, the footballing infrastructure of the country will be analyzed as well as its national league so, as part of the new lick of friendlier paint MBS is trying to apply to his country, the league will also be revamped. The reasons behind it, however, are not sporting excellence or even giving his citizens the privilege of watching footballing legends. No, that is merely a byproduct of a targeted marketing campaign that draws similarities to the KFC advertisements in which Cristiano Ronaldo played.
What better way to say to your consumers, no, our chicken wings or our country is not evil, than to invite one of the most recognizable faces to do your bidding? Of course, the naysayers will point out that this move is made so that the interest in football in the country will grow and more kids will start joining clubs and a new possibly golden generation for the Saudi national team will emerge, but once again that would be a byproduct and not the intended target of this campaign.
After Cristiano’s move has gone quite swimmingly for the Saudi league and can be viewed as sort of a test run, every sporting outlet has been quick to report a myriad of new potential signings. From hard evidence of Al Ittihad’s interest in Karim Benzema to speculation over every 30+ plus superstar who finds themselves out of contract, including but not limited to N’Golo Kante, Hugo Lloris, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Luka Modric or David De Gea, the papers are rife with talk.
And then of course there’s Lionel Messi, the man who has just won the World Cup draped in a traditional Middle Eastern garb and has done multiple ad campaigns for tourism in the country seems like the perfect choice for one of the teams. I say one of the teams because the clubs themselves are not making the transfer bids, the state itself contacts the players offering them sums ranging from 100 to more than 400k a week, aided by the fact that FFP has no power in Saudi Arabia.
With this approach, it is hard to justify sporting excellence as the reason behind this obscene outlay and one only needs to think of how ridiculous King Charles would look traveling across Europe, buying up players, and then randomly assigning them to either Manchester clubs, Liverpool or Arsenal, to understand the situation.
The main question mark regarding the future of Saudi football boils down to whether or not an attractive league can be created or if the league will basically become the garbage can of European clubs and a very well-paying garbage can at that. Since I cannot see into the future, the best course of action is to examine the past in order to ascertain how other approaches of this type have worked.
The earliest form of these leagues that employed form without substance was the Colombian league. During the 1950s, it broke away from FIFA and thus circumvented the rules around transfer fees and could basically sign anyone they pleased on ludicrous salaries. For a while, the league signed every big and small superstar they could get their hands on, with Alfredo Di Stefano being their crown jewel. However, financial issues and low interest from abroad meant that the league reunited with FIFA and all the foreign players left.
Fast forward around 10 years and the USA tried a similar approach. From the ill-fated attempts to import European teams during the off-season and have them play as American teams to the madness of the 70s where Pele, Franz Beckenbauer. Johan Cruyff and Eusebio all played in the US, once again, the form was there but the substance lacked. The most telling example of this, however, is the Chinese Super League.
A country almost as foreign to football as Saudi Arabia, with a regime that is just as oppressive and despotic, the Chinese state initiated the push for an increase in footballing performance in 2016. Aging superstars became the best-paid players in the world and Chinese billionaires were ordered by the state to start buying up clubs in Europe, and what happened? A little virus started going around, the geopolitical situation shifted and China lost interest in football.
Now the league is bankrupt, alongside all the clubs that were bought by their billionaires. And this is where Saudi Arabian football is headed. No matter how many superstars denigrate themselves by joining the league for one last paycheck, no matter how many stadiums get built, no one will start watching the league outside the Middle East.
A banal Champions League group stage game, a Premier League relegation scrap, or a game in the Argentinian league will have more pulling power than the biggest of Saudi derbies. Let me put it this way: if you want to see the Eiffel Tower, do you go to Paris or do you go to Shenzen or Las Vegas? This newest attempt at legitimizing a tyrannical regime through sportswashing can be summed up best in the immortal words of Mark Hanna in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street: “Eh, Fugayzi, fugazi. It’s a whazy. It’s a woozie. It’s an SsSsSs fairy dust.”
The facts speak louder than anything else: oil is running out and these regimes need something else to replace it, however, most of the time those replacements are cheap copies of stuff that works someplace else. The only problem is the stuff that works someplace else works there because it came up organically, and for humans organic beats fake every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
By: Eduard Holdis / @He_ftbl
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Getty Images