The 2022-23 club football season is almost over and teams have already started preparing for the 2023-24 season. Most of the teams are looking to make changes and improve their squad. Looking at the current transfer scenario, the Saudi Pro League (SPL) clubs are the ones topping the headlines.
Nowadays, all we hear in the news is Saudi Pro League clubs making a transfer bid for a star player. Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al-Nassr has opened the doors for a lot of professionals. The fee and wages that these clubs are offering are becoming difficult to reject.
Due to no restriction on the financial rules, these Saudi Pro clubs offer players more than they used to earn in their previous clubs. Why are these clubs spending so much? What could be their vision?
Cristiano Ronaldo‘s signing is the biggest moment to date in Saudi Pro League. Karim Benzema followed his former teammate and recently joined the Saudi League. The Frenchman was offered a lot of money and he took no time to accept it. N’Golo Kante is another big name who is heading to Saudi Arabia. Romelu Lukaku is another purported transfer that the football tabloids are keenly keeping their eyes on.
Fabrizio Romano’s famous phrase: “Here We Go” may surely make the rounds on social media platforms yet again.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.
Analysts such as Elume Raymond say that his recruitment in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider effort by the kingdom to diversify its sources of revenue and become a serious player in the international sporting scene.
“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Elume, our Columnist told our crew.
“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.
Recently, Public Investment Fund (PIF), which owns Newcastle United, made a big investment in the Saudi Pro League and now have 75% control of Al Ittihad, Al Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al Hilal.
Saudi Arabia’s goal in football
Gulf nations engage in fierce competition to become the region’s premier entertainment and sporting hubs. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in close proximity to each other, each have their own Formula One racing event. But their competition hasn’t been confined to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also bought trophy-laden European football teams.
Riyadh is playing catch-up with neighbours who have long realized the importance of investing in sports, especially as its main source of income – oil – is being gradually shunned.
“This is part of an ongoing attempt to create more resilient economies that are more broadly based upon industries other than those that are derived from oil and gas,” Elume told kick442.
Ronaldo’s new club Al Nassr is backed by Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a subsidiary of the kingdom’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.
Saudi Arabia aims at increasing the revenue from the football league and take it to the top 10 leagues in the world. Saudi clubs are not bound by any rules on spending. This means they can offer high salaries that could lure players to the Middle East.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a privatisation plan that mainly focuses on football clubs. This plan allows companies and development agencies to invest in clubs or take over.
Sports is one of the pillars of the government’s Vision 2030 economic diversification plan that seeks to build new industries and create jobs – and PIF is at the centre of that scheme.
They plan to increase the revenue generated from the league. By 2030, the revenue must go up to $480m (287B FCFA) from $120m (72B FCFA). Other than this, they also expect the market value to rise to more than $2.1 billion (1.26T FCFA).
The Saudi league’s chief executive, Garry Cook, a former Nike executive who briefly ran Manchester City after it was bought by the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has been tasked with executing the plans.
Saudi Arabia has also made a bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2030. With Qatar having successfully hosted the 2022 edition, Saudi Arabia also looks to get into the history books.
With the league attracting top players, it looks like the Middle East nation is growing rapidly in football. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sees sports as a vital part of their overall strategy to change the country’s international political and economic standing.
The kingdom has been on a path to not only diversify its economy, but also shift its image amid a barrage of criticism over its human rights record and treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is today hosting everything from desert raves to teaming up with renowned football players. Argentina’s Lionel Messi last year signed a lucrative promotional deal with the kingdom.
Hailed as the world’s greatest player, 35-year-old Messi ended the World Cup tournament in Qatar with his team’s win over France, making his ambassadorship of even greater value to the kingdom.
The acquisition of such key global figures will also help combat the monarchy’s decades-long reputation of being “secretive” and “ultra-conservative.”
The project comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong performance by Saudi Arabia at last year’s World Cup in Qatar. The team’s run included a stunning victory over the eventual champion, Argentina, which stoked pride on the Saudi streets and in the halls of power in Riyadh. The project’s goal is not so much to make the Saudi league an equal of century-old competitions like England’s Premier League or other top European competitions, but to increase Saudi influence in the sport, and perhaps boost its profile as it bids for the 2030 World Cup.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly weighing a 2030 World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, but the kingdom’s tourism ministry noted that it has not yet submitted an official bid.
It will be interesting to see which nation gets a chance to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup. Saudi Arabia and Saudi Pro League are in the news these days. They will look to grow football in their country and become one of the best leagues in the world.
Saudi Arabia is causing ripple effects across the sports world
Saudi Arabia’s sudden and cash-soaked presence is likely to create further chaos in football’s typically frenzied summer trading window, which typically runs from June through August.
Saudi investment has disrupted professional golf in the form of LIV Golf, a breakaway competition from the traditional PGA Tour that utilized Riyadh’s deep pockets to draw some of the game’s biggest names.
However, our columnist Raymond Elume has suggested that attracting a handful of superstars in the twilight of their careers to a team sports league would not be sufficient for Saudi Arabia to attract a critical mass of fan interest, since the quality of play would still be considerably lower than in top European leagues.
The Saudi model poses more of a threat to the U.S., he noted, since Major League Soccer (MLS) has a long-running strategy of attracting aging star players to build interest and viewership. To this end, each club is permitted to sign three players whose compensation package is excluded from the team’s salary cap.
European clubs have continually increased transfer fees and player salaries in recent decades in order to attract and retain top talent and stay competitive.
Elume suggested that Saudi investment in individual players could propel player salaries higher, but European football body UEFA recently introduced rules stipulating that no club can spend more than 90% of its yearly revenues on wages, transfers, and agent fees in 2023. This limit will further reduce to 70% in 2025.
“As such, if revenues do not continue to grow, European clubs’ wage bills will be capped. Under this scenario, increased individual player salaries could lead to reduced squad quality over time and a competitive disadvantage versus teams outside Europe.
“Any negative impact on on-pitch results, brand values, and viewership would also affect European football clubs’ credit profiles, and clubs that could not grow revenue and reinvest in their squads would be most exposed,” he stated.
Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of football stars risks sidelining local talent
From the historic World Cup win over Argentina to Al-Nassr FC landing Cristiano Ronaldo and rival Al-Hilal FC making the Club World Cup final, Saudi Arabian football is going through one of its most successful periods.
Away from the global spotlight, there have been further triumphs at the youth level, with the Green Falcons winning last year’s Asian Football Confederation U-23 Asian Cup, pointing to a positive future for the national team.
For long-term success, officials must balance bringing foreign players in and giving young talent room to grow.
But there is a fine balancing act officials in the kingdom will have to strike to ensure that the development of local talent, and ultimately the national team, is not hindered by the flow of foreign players coming into the Saudi Pro League (SPL).
In recent years, the SPL has relaxed the rules on the number of foreign players allowed, designed to increase the professionalism and standard of the domestic game. As recently as the 2016-17 season, only four were allowed for each team, while there was a ban on signing foreign goalkeepers. Over the following years that quota has gradually increased, with eight foreign players now allowed per team, including goalkeepers.
In a league full of foreign coaches seeking instant success, the development of local talent takes a back seat to the immediate requirement of winning games, which means almost all clubs make full use of the allowed quota.
But there are genuine questions to be asked as to whether this push, which undoubtedly improves the standard of domestic competition, is counterproductive to the aim of developing local Saudi talent.
An analysis of the data from Saudi Arabia’s 2022 U-23 Asian Cup winning squad points to another concerning picture for that generation of Saudi players. About half have played fewer than 10 games in the league so far this season.
“The best solution, in general, is to really invest in youth development and strengthen the grassroots,” Elume added.
“There’s no shortcut to that. It takes time and patience. Saudi Arabia does produce good young players as we have seen at various Asian youth levels, and this needs to be built upon.”
With the stated ambition of making the Saudi Pro League one of the top 10 leagues in the world within the next decade, achieving that would mean it being regarded as the best in Asia.
If that is the ambition, and if it wants to take its role as a leader of the continent seriously and develop Asian football as a collective, then there is one thing it can do to ensure that is the case – become a hothouse of the best regional talent.
The SPL is no stranger to some of the best names in Asian football. Syrian pair Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khrbin took the league by storm with Al-Ahli and Al-Hilal respectively, the latter even being named Asian Player of the Year in 2017, while Al-Somah won three consecutive Golden Boots on his way to becoming one of the continent’s most feared competitors.
At just 18 years of age, Indonesia’s Marselino Ferdinan is regarded as one of his nation’s most promising young talents. A precocious player, he is now a regular with the senior national team, having made his debut aged just 17, and will be the headline act for Indonesia at next year’s AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
Providing a platform for Marselino to flourish, and opening the SPL up to the football-crazy market of Indonesia, would be a win-win.
Saudi Arabia’s bid to become a global force in football
Saudi Arabia has always been a regional football powerhouse, with World Cup appearances and Asian titles to its name, but now the country has plans to become a global force – sooner rather than later.
If successful, the local football landscape in West Asia and North Africa is going to have to adapt to this new reality.
Saudi Arabia has a large and deep football foundation on which to build. Al-Ittihad, for example, had an average attendance of 40,000 last season.
A little further to the west and traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria are also going to have to adjust to the new regime in Riyadh.
Egyptian internationals Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Ahmed played key roles in Al-Ittihad’s title win. Algerian international goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba is with Damac while Sofiane Bendebka plays for Al-Fateh. Al-Wehda’s Munir Mohamedi is a Moroccan international.
Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and Zamalek and the likes of Wydad AC of Morocco and Esperance de Tunis have long and proud histories with huge fan bases but simply can’t compete financially with their rivals to the east. Saudi Arabia’s league is on the way to becoming the representative Arab football league, attracting more and more of the best talent in the region.
Reputable managers like Nuno Espirito Santo, Pitso Mosimane, Dejan Stankovic, Giorgos Donis, Marius Sumudica and Cosmin Contra are also part of Saudi’s talent push. It has not always been like this and Saudi Arabian football is enjoying its finest day in the sun to date.
If you watched the 2022 World Cup, you would know that Saudi Arabia beat eventual winners Argentina in the group stage before bowing out heroically under Herve Renard. Memories of that famous 2-1 victory will live on for years to come and the result proved to the world that Saudi talent is not to be sniffed at. The aim in the next few years will be to build on that base and to be even more competitive come 2026 and potentially to win the Asian title on home soil in 2027.
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