The Saudi Football League creates a huge fund to sign world stars

Lists were drawn up and financing secured. Saudi Arabia is seeking to attract some of the most famous soccer players in the world to join Cristiano Ronaldo in its national league. And to close deals, you rely on money, the one commodity you know can offer more than any of its competing leagues.

Similar in ambition to the Saudi-funded campaign to dominate golf through the new LIV series, the plan appears to be a centralized effort – backed at the highest levels in Saudi Arabia, and funded by the kingdom’s massive sovereign wealth fund – to transform the country’s domestic league, a footnote on the soccer stage. Global, to the destination for the best talent.

To achieve this, Saudi clubs are already closing in on players accepting a move to the kingdom with some of the highest annual salaries in the sport’s history. The deals could require more than $1 billion in wages for around 20 foreign players.

Since Ronaldo’s arrival, the Saudi league has been considering whether to centrally coordinate more big-money signings in order to distribute talent evenly among the biggest teams, according to interviews with agents, television executives, Saudi sports officials and consultants hired to carry out the project, details of which were not reported from before. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the deals in question were private.

In recent weeks, leaks have been mounting about huge offers for famous players: Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in December, is said to have been lured with a contract. Richer than the Saudi Ronaldo deal; And the French striker Karim BenzemaThe FIFA World Player of the Year has reportedly agreed to leave Real Madrid on a nine-figure deal to play in Saudi Arabia.

The British chief executive of the Saudi League, Gary Cook, a former Nike executive who briefly managed Manchester City after it was bought by the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, was tasked with implementing the plans. Cook did not respond to an email seeking comment. League officials also did not respond to requests for comment on the plans.

This project follows Saudi Arabia’s surprisingly strong performance at last year’s Men’s World Cup in Qatar. The team’s march witnessed a stunning victory over the Argentine champion, who reinforced pride in the streets of Saudi Arabia and in the corridors of power in Riyadh. The goal of the project is not to make the Saudi League equal to century-old competitions such as the English Premier League or other major European competitions, but rather to increase Saudi influence in the sport, and perhaps enhance its position as it competes for the 2030 World Cup.

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But the effort is also reminiscent of a similar plan a decade ago in which China sought to claw its way into the global soccer conversation through a series of high-profile, high-dollar acquisitions. Marred by blighting decades, economic meltdowns and the coronavirus pandemic, this bold plan now appears to have reached its conclusion.

The Saudi League’s plans to become the dominant domestic competition in Asia are similarly subject to the whims of the country’s leadership, and could be derailed by a sudden change in direction, or the ability to sign the kind of elite talent that is so sought after. Players will also be bound by contracts with teams that have in the past been regular attendees at arbitration hearings demanding non-payment of fees and salaries.

According to interviews with people familiar with the project, the league, not the clubs, would centrally negotiate player transfers and assign players to specific teams, in a model similar to that used by football League Where she established her global profile. Centralized signings may be a departure from what is usual in most parts of the world, with clubs acquiring players directly and trading them independently.

The size of the Saudi war chest is unclear, but officials familiar with the matter say it is as huge as the list of players the league has identified as potential recruits. Much of the money invested in the league and clubs lately has come from the Public Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund headed by the powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The fund has signed 20-year commercial agreements worth tens of millions of dollars with the four most famous clubs in the Saudi Premier League. These deals will require the two teams, two from Riyadh and two from the coastal city of Jeddah, to play games in new arenas in entertainment complexes that are being built by subsidiaries of the Public Investment Fund. PIF also sponsors the league itself through one of the companies in its portfolio, real estate developer Roshn.

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According to one person briefed on the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss them publicly, the aim is for the four biggest teams to include three senior foreign players each, and for eight more players to be involved. Distributed to the remaining 12 teams in the league.

The move towards more centralization in the league will end the period of autonomy granted to clubs, which is another indication of the Saudi state’s interest in using sports as part of a campaign to change the kingdom’s perceptions on the global stage, and to diversify it. economy away from oil. Saudi Arabia has been among the biggest spenders on global sports in recent years, bringing major events to the kingdom and investing in sports real estate.

The Public Investment Fund was the driving force behind a lot of that, too. Two years ago, it acquired Newcastle United, a Premier League club, and through its smart financing and hiring helped it achieve its best league finish in decades and a place in the Champions League next season. The Saudi oil company, Aramco, is the main sponsor of the Formula 1 motorsport series. But perhaps the PIF’s most astute effort has been in golf, which has poured billions into creating LIV, the North American and European-based touring competition.

All of these projects have come under scrutiny amid allegations that Saudi Arabia is using its investments in sports to deflect attention from its human rights record. But the golf series, in particular, has shown that Saudi Arabia’s interest in the sport may not wane even if the promised financial reward does not arrive. Saudi officials have vehemently denied the allegations of “sportswashing,” arguing that some of the motivations behind their push into global sports include catering to a sports-loving population and encouraging more physical activity in a country where obesity and diabetes are common.

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Discussions with potential football recruits and their agents are ongoing. Saudi Arabia’s sudden and cash-strapped presence is likely to create more chaos in football’s frantic summer trading window, which usually runs from June to August.

Promoting the top four teams may not be universally popular in a kingdom that has a rich footballing history and where the sport is followed with passion. Teams not counted in the elite group have already expressed their frustration at the prospect of being left behind.

The sense of injustice was most evident at Al-Shabab, the third-biggest club in the capital, Riyadh, which had to struggle living in the shadows of its high-profile rivals Al-Nasr, Al-Hilal and Jeddah. – The counterparts residing in Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahly.

“I buried the legend of the Big Four with my hands,” youth chief Khaled Al-Baltan told reporters at the end of last season, when Al-Ahly was relegated to the second division for the first time. date. Al-Baltan dominated the Saudi League in the 1990s, when it was home to stars such as Fouad Anwar Amin and Saeed Al-Owairan, who led Saudi Arabia to the knockout stages in the Kingdom’s first appearance at the 1994 World Cup.

While the Saudi Ministry of Sports is currently funding a major renovation of the Al-Shabab stadium in northern Riyadh, Al-Baltan has complained bitterly about the lack of support – taking care to avoid criticizing the government or the PIF by name.

El-Beltan said during a press conference last week, where he wondered aloud how youngsters were supposed to compete when Ronaldo was paid one. The season is four times the size of the club’s annual budget.

“Did I expect to close that huge gap myself?” Asked. “My car is a small Japanese sedan, and I’m expected to race Lamborghinis and Ferraris in some way. If I don’t win then I’m bad? It doesn’t make sense.”

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