CHASING THE MILLIONS
Saudi Arabia serenades global soccer’s best with the sweetest tune of all — money
In spite of the criticism and focus on Saudi Arabia reeling in some of the best soccer players in the world through large salaries, it was Europe that created the vortex.
In the sporting world, 2023 will forever be remembered as the year that Saudi Arabia upset the apple cart and lured some of the best talent from Europe’s top leagues to the Saudi Pro League.
Over the past couple of months, the likes of Ballon d’Or holder Karim Benzema, Brazilian superstar Neymar Jr and respected French midfielder N’Golo Kante have all penned deals with Saudi sides.
They followed in the footsteps of Cristiano Ronaldo. The soccer legend moved to the league in December 2022, where it was announced that he would earn a staggering $200-million (R3.8-billion) a year at Al Nassr.
The Senegalese trio of Sadio Mané, Édouard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly have since also moved to the Gulf country. As have former Liverpool stars Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Roberto Firmino.
The list is endless and also includes players such as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who was on the radar of Europe’s elite for many seasons after some stellar showings for Italian club Lazio between 2015 and 2023.
The 28-year-old instead opted to join 26-year-old Portuguese international Ruben Neves at Al Hilal. Another player under 30, Aleksandar Mitrović, joined the duo at the club.
This is in spite of the latter enjoying his best goal return in the English Premier League last season, as the former Newcastle United striker scored 14 goals from 24 outings for Fulham. However, he couldn’t fend off the allure of Saudi Arabia.
This is a cause for concern amongst those who have opted to stay in Europe. For now. As Manchester City and Spain midfielder Rodri recently said during a press conference.
“Evidently, European football loses with this situation and it is a very particular opinion of the players who decide to go out to these leagues,” Rodri stated.
“It is totally understandable due to the amounts of money they offer. It’s a personal issue for everyone to decide for themselves,” continued the midfielder, whose former teammate Riyad Mahrez also left for the Saudi Pro League in the off-season.
“We Europeans don’t really like it. It must be controlled in some way; this drain of talent. Because at first, it seemed like it was just veterans in the twilight of their careers. But there are young people now who are leaving. They are respectable decisions, but the people who take action must control this situation.”
Unleash the billions
The irony is of course the fact it is the Europeans, and in particular the English Premier League that opened up this vortex in the first place. In fact, it was the arrival of Chelsea’s former owner Roman Abramovich in 2003 that initiated this transition of teams being owned by billionaires, who pump their own money into their new pet projects.
Sure, around this time Real Madrid’s Galacticos ethos — where they stopped at nothing to bring the crème-de-la-crème of global soccer to Spain — was in full swing.
However, the difference between Chelsea and Madrid was that Los Blancos were a traditional power. A mega force both on the field and commercially. The Blues on the other hand? They were just an average team, with a penchant for performing beyond expectation once in a while.
That all changed when Abramovich began pumping his own money into the London club, managing to reel in some of the best talent in European soccer at the time, with his seemingly endless supply of funds.
Five years after Abramovich first arrived, Manchester City’s Emirati owners would build on the money-splurging culture that was engulfing European soccer. Then in 2011, came Paris Saint Germain’s Qatari bosses. They too would add their own chapter to the money-oriented soccer sphere.
All this considered, what the Saudis have done through the four teams (Al Ahli, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Al Nassr) owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) — the country’s sovereign wealth fund — is just an exploitation of the inflated market which was created in Europe.
Though there are a plethora of reasons for this exodus to the Gulf state, including claims by the Saudi government that it is merely trying to diversify its income streams, former Napoli and Chelsea defender Koulibaly was honest about his personal reasons.
“I am happy with my decisions for many reasons. I am Muslim and I land in the right country. I am happy to play in a league that is evolving,” the 32-year-old told Italian publication Corriere dello Sport.
“I hope I can help Saudi Arabia and Al-Hilal write history in sports and this contract is really important. I can help my family live well. My parents and cousins. And sustain the social activities of my NGO in Senegal.”
How sustainable the model of just throwing eyewatering amounts of money at players is, remains to be seen. However, those in power in Saudi Arabia believe it will serve the country well and is actually an investment.
“Oil is still the main source of income for the state,” Prince Mohammed, chairman of the Council of Economic and Development Affairs said.
“My intention is to make sure that the country is secure, safe and has a better future to look forward to. The increase in population will not be able to depend on oil production, at the rate we are going.”
The country also dreams of hosting a Fifa World Cup in future. Their recruitment drive may serve them well as it has undoubtedly boosted their profile from a soccer perspective. Though the country’s dubious human rights record still remains. DM