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Saudi Arabia is Coming for Football

4 minute read Published September 27, 2023

This summer transfer window Saudia Arabia really went on the offensive with their newest sportswashing project, the Saudi League. Ronaldo had already gone there. An important step for the league to show players that it’s a real league. And then the floodgates opened.

This summer a lot of talent from the European leagues have chosen to join Saudi teams. Many have been older - yes, many looking for a final payday - also true. But the quality of those players is still undeniable. Benzema, for example, carried Real Madrid on his back to a Champions League win just two years ago.

The sums these players are being paid are astronomical. Hundreds of millions. Hard to imagine there’s an economic gain to make from these clubs at this stage. So that begs the question - what’s the endgame for the Saudi football sportswashing project?

The LIV Tour

To answer that question we’ll start by going back a few years. Back to take a look at (probably) their most successful sportswashing project to date: the LIV Tour.

The LIV Tour is a professional golf tour that was started by the Saudi Public Investment Fund in 2021. In a similar vein to how they’ve gone about poaching players from the European leagues, the LIV Tour offered active PGA players crazy amounts of money to leave the PGA and join them instead.

The tour managed to attract some of the biggest stars in the golfing world such as Phil Mickleson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Kroepka. It quickly became a real competitor and a threat to the PGA tour.

The PGA said there was no way players could play on both tours. Some players chose to stay loyal to the well established, historically more relevant PGA tour, despite paying a lot less.

In June of this year, PGA succumbed to the competition of the LIV and the two announced a merger. Players who had stayed with the PGA were, rightfully, very frustrated to have turned down the offers they’d received for more money. They felt they had offered loyalty and gotten a bad deal in return.

The Saudi League and Footballing Project

How does this compare to the Saudis footballing project? The pattern is very similar. They’re going through the first phase right now, where they’re bringing top players to the league with crazy money.

Earlier this summer, the league reportedly also asked UEFA to join the Champions League. An ask that was promptly refused by European football's governing body.

What’ll Happen Next?

Here’s where things get interesting. Offering that kind of money to players is one thing. The thing is, that kind of money would be huge even for European top clubs.

Club Yearly Revenue
Manchester City €644.9m
Real Madrid €640.7m
Bayern Munich €611.4m
Barcelona €582.6m
Liverpool €594.4m
Paris Saint-Germain €654.2m
Juventus €433.5m
Chelsea €493.1m
Manchester United €581.2m
Tottenham Hotspur €443.8m
Arsenal €433.5m

Ronaldo earns a reported €200 million Euros per year. That’s almost 50% of Arsenal's revenue and about 30% of Manchester City’s.

Here’s a prediction: the Saudis are preparing to create a tournament of their own. The kind of prize and participation money they could offer would exceed even that of the Champions League. I think it’ll start as a summer tournament, positioned as a “friendly” or “training” tournament for the season ahead. It’ll be for the most popular teams in Europe as well as the Saudi teams.

We already know the European top clubs are interested in a set up like this. In 2021 twelve European clubs announced the creation of the European Super League. They argued that for their clubs to be financially stable, there needed to be more stability in the way they made money.

Ending thoughts

So, there is precedent in the Saudis creating a sporting event to compete with an almost almighty governing body, the PGA. The success of that shows that even UEFA could be open to competition, if the money invested was big enough.

The Saudis are currently acting in the same way they were when they initially started that event, by poaching players with crazy money. Ronaldo, Benzema and Mane are just a few of the players that have chosen to leave for a pay day.

They’ve already asked and been denied access to play the top clubs in Europe. Clearly, they want in on the audience the European teams have.

There is a demand for a stable income, cup competition for the biggest clubs in Europe. They’ve already tried to create such an income themselves, when they announced the ESL (although it ultimately failed).

I think this is how it will play out. Not only that. I think it might work.

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