Fuelled by a seemingly endless well of financial resources, Saudi Arabia has begun to make substantial moves in global football, attracting some of the sport’s biggest names to its shores. While the audacity of their ambitions might seem shocking, these investments are less about a newfound passion for the ‘beautiful game’ and more about a strategic plan to rebrand the country’s image on the world stage.
A new powerhouse emerges
Ronaldo, Benzama, Kante, Zaha – a roll call of footballing greats that now call Saudi Arabia home. The allure of astronomical wages has led to an influx of Europe’s finest talents to the 68th biggest league in the world, the Saudi Pro-League.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival at Al-Nassr dramatically increased their average attendance from around 7,000 to nearly 20,000. The Saudi Arabian football revolution is in full swing, and the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), is behind it.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (@PIF_en) acquires four top Saudi football clubs, including Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr.
— tether.bet (@TetherBet) June 6, 2023
Even the great Lionel Messi, an ambassador for Saudi Arabia funded by the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, has found himself embroiled in this game-changing operation. The astronomical sum offered by the Saudis to play in their league next season would dwarf any deal offered by his current club.
Change at the helm: The ‘Big Four’
Al Ittihad, Al Nassr, Al Ahli, and Al Hilal, the ‘Big Four’ of Saudi League, were all taken over by PIF in May, changing the entire dynamics of the country’s football scene.
Now with access to near limitless resources, these clubs can challenge even the wealthiest of European clubs when it comes to wages. The aim? To create a football league of global significance that commands attention from football lovers across the globe.
Yet the influx of PIF money has not been confined to Saudi Arabia alone. This investment giant was behind the takeover of Newcastle United, and it has also transformed golf by merging its LIV venture with that of the PGA and DP World Tour.
PIF is not just a sporting investment operation – it’s a powerful instrument to diversify Saudi Arabia’s portfolio and revamp its image worldwide.
The controversial force behind the football revolution
The modernisation and commercial revolution Saudi Arabia is embarking upon does not absolve its long-standing human rights issues. Homosexuality remains a punishable crime, women’s rights are severely limited, and civil liberties remain a distant dream for many. These socio-political issues underline a stark contrast with the nation’s ambitious sporting investments.
Let’s not forget about the international stage too.
Saudi Arabia are already confirmed 2027 Asia Cup hosts.
A 2030 World Cup bid is looming.
It’s truly here where there plan will either sink or swim. pic.twitter.com/UqApUm7CFC
— Liam Withington (@lwithington28) June 15, 2023
At the heart of this transformative endeavour is Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project, which is centred on modernising the country, diversifying its economy, and making it a popular tourist destination.
The country’s wealth is invested not only in football but also in companies such as Disney and Starbucks, all in a bid to create an impression of cultural similarity with the Western world.
A PR campaign or a genuine love for football?
The strategic investment in football is a two-pronged approach. On a global scale, it helps create an image of modernity and progressiveness. Locally, it keeps a young, digitally savvy, and entertainment-hungry population entertained and content.
There’s also the potential that this could significantly bolster the nation’s chances of hosting a future World Cup. If Saudi Arabia can present itself as a global hub of footballing talent, it can legitimise its claim to host the world’s most prestigious football event.
“It’s wonderful that sports and money can bring us all together to ignore grave human rights violations.” — Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince Of Saudi Arabia https://t.co/Rz6LOrCBVG pic.twitter.com/Rp7Q59ikC3
— The Onion (@TheOnion) June 10, 2023
But there’s a lot at stake. Saudi Arabia’s investment in football might end up altering the sport’s dynamics entirely, especially in the European market.
Football has become a pawn in arguably the biggest PR campaign in human history. The sport is being reshaped and repackaged as part of Saudi Arabia’s global branding strategy.
This seismic shift is unlikely to abate, and every football fan around the world is, knowingly or unknowingly, becoming part of it. Football will undeniably change under this new reality – but whether this change will be for the better is a question that still hangs in the air.