As the whole world begins to get to grips with football in the Middle East, the 2022 FIFA World Cup showed there is a massive potential for the game to grow in the region.
There is no doubt about Saudi Arabia’s genuine love for football as evidenced by their fervent support and stunning victory over champions-in-waiting, Argentina, in Qatar. Major clubs from the Gulf state have also been thriving in the Asian Champions League and there is genuine promise for the future.
However, alarm bells have been set off by the sudden emergence of Saudi Arabian clubs competing strongly in the European football market this year. Funded by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), four clubs have now been taken over with Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli leading the adventure for Europe’s finest.
Cristiano Ronaldo led the Saudi exodus at Al-Nassr, earning £177 million per year at the age of 38. He has been joined at the Mrsool Park by Marcelo Brozović while former France teammates Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kanté will also be earning mammoth wages at Saudi Pro League champions Al-Ittihad.
Wolves captain Ruben Neves has also traded the English West Midlands for Saudi after completing a £47m transfer to Al-Hilal. The Portuguese international is a major coup given he’s at the prime age of 26 and will attract more young players to increase the trajectory of the Roshn Saudi League.
Roberto Firmino, Kalidou Koulibaly, Édouard Mendy and Sergej Milinković-Savić are among the star names that have already joined while Al-Ahli have been linked with Sergio Ramos after the 37-year-old left PSG as a free agent. Wilfried Zaha is also of interest to the Saudi project as is Hakim Ziyech whose £26 million a year deal with Al-Nassr collapsed at the last minute.
Could the Saudi league become a genuine powerhouse?
The aim of these big moves is to bring attention to the Saudi Pro League and Saudi Arabian football as they seek to evolve into a leading force in the game.
However, the Saudis must ensure there is a sustainable long-term path to the growth of their domestic competition and allow it to develop organically despite their willingness to accelerate this process.
Indeed, the low transfer fees attached to their big-name acquisitions minimises the risk football-wise as they will retain the pull power and marketability throughout the duration of those massive contracts.
‘The Saudi league is better than the MLS,’ said Cristiano Ronaldo recently.
‘I’m 100 per cent sure I won’t return to any European club. I opened the way to the Saudi league and now all the players are coming here.
‘I won’t return to European football, the door is completely closed,’ he added.
‘I’m 38 years old, also European football has lost lot of quality. The only league that for me has a lot of quality and is at a higher level than all the others is the Premier League.
‘The Spanish league does not have that great quality. The Portuguese league is a good league, but it is not a top, top league. The German league I think has also lost a lot. I’m sure I won’t play in Europe again. I want to play in Saudi Arabia.’
‘In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi,’ the Portuguese superstar continued. ‘In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league.
‘Players who arrived aren’t like what the president of the European Union said. Jota and Neves are young players.’
The five-time Ballon d’Or winner may be right about paving the way for others into the Saudi League but a lot more has to be done to make this more than just the latest cash cow hoping to gatecrash the elite level of football.
Attention must be paid to youth development in the country alongside world-class facilities to help develop the overall quality of the next generation.
Beware of a False Dawn
History suggests seemingly limitless money to attract famous and ageing stars will not guarantee a creditable and sustainable product as the North American Soccer League (NASL) burned brightly in the late 1970s when Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto rocked up at New York Cosmos.
The Chinese Super League (CSL) also went on a financial spree in 2016 until new rules dictated that foreign players would be limited to three per game. By the time a deadly virus broke out in Wuhan, China in 2019, a complicated project had been completely brought to its knees by the pandemic.
Another catastrophic splurge was observed on a smaller scale in Russia when Anzhi Makhachkala were taken over by billionaire Suleyman Kerimov in 2011 with the promise to invest hundreds of millions into football in the Dagestani region. Anzhi signed Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning left-back Roberto Carlos, Jucilei, Diego Tardelli, Yuri Zhirkov, Willian, Lassana Diarra and Samuel Eto’o as they made their way to the Europa League knockout stages.
Only two years after their ambitious takeover, budget cuts were being made and the club lost all its key players as they finished bottom of the table, a few promotions and relegations preceded licensing issues and eventual administration. By 2022, one of the financial heavyweights of European football had been dissolved.
With inadequate TV rights and a little uptick in commercial activities, previous ground-breaking football projects similar to Saudi’s have collapsed because they were not built on a sustainable financial model. Not many were watching the football internationally whilst the clubs were paying huge salaries to players, the majority of whom were past their peak years.
Elsewhere, Lionel Messi turned down a move to the Middle East before signing for Inter Miami while Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min and Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes have also rejected offers to join the new mecca of football this summer.
This proves that many world-class stars are still sceptical about making the jump and there is a lot of ground yet to be covered by this ambitious project.
Meanwhile, Michael Emenalo has been appointed as the first director of football of the Saudi Pro League in a bid to lead a centralized approach to attracting more international players to the shores. This is a move that indicates the commitment to securing a complete revamp of Saudi Arabian football with elite talent on and off the pitch.
It is too early to speculate on the survival of this bold plan but its success or otherwise will be determined by the long-lasting commitments made in these embryonic months.