Why Saudi football investment is going to get bigger and bigger

Recruiting star players who are still playing at a high level in European club football sends out a clear message about Saudi Arabia’s football ambitions

by

Leslie Wilson Jr

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Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. — AFP file
Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. — AFP file

Published: Fri 4 Aug 2023, 12:34 AM

It was about the end of 2022 and football’s most gifted minds were taking a break after discussing and analysing the Fifa World Cup and what could be the next glorious chapter for the beautiful game.

The Qatar spectacle had ticked all the boxes as it generated a huge level of interest all across the industry, more importantly, it demonstrated that the global game has never looked in better shape.


However, not far away in neighbouring Saudi Arabia an ingenious plot was being hatched with the aim of growing the game and creating a paradigm shift in world attention that would see football’s popularity soar even higher within the rapidly developing kingdom.

It all began with signing the effervescent Cristiano Ronaldo to the Saudi Pro League in 2023, which at the time created quantum ripples in football.


But it was just the start of an audacious scheme that would revolutionise football and forever change the game’s landscape in the Middle East and leave repercussions in Europe.

Seven months on Saudi Arabia, which had in recent months created a huge presence on the sporting scene by hosting high-profile F1 races, world title heavyweight boxing fights and establishing its revolutionary LIV Golf model, has become the epicentre of world football.

With high-profile signings of stars like Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante and Sadio Mane following Ronaldo's stunning move from Manchester United to Al-Nassr, Saudi is positioning itself to enhance its football profile.

Since the seventies the standard of the Saudi game has authentically grown in leaps and bounds.

The national team, also known as the ‘Green Falcons’, have participated in six Fifa World Cups in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2018 and 2022.

Their most celebrated achievement was reaching the last sixteen in their debut year when the spectacle was held in the United States.

Having posted shock wins over Belgium and Morocco they progressed to the pre-quarterfinal where they came up against an inspired Sweden who ended their dream run.

After several stellar performances in subsequent World Cup Saudi authored one of their greatest upsets when they defeated eventual winners Argentina 2-1 in the opening game at Qatar to snap the South American powerhouse’s 36-game unbeaten run.

The Saudis also made incredible progress in club football even before the arrival of the superstars from Europe.

Saudi clubs don’t just have an impressive record in the Middle East but also in Asian competitions.

Al Hilal have won eight Asian titles including the prestigious AFC Champions League a record four times. They were also runner-up five times.

The country will also host the 2027 edition of the Asian Cup for the first time in its history.

Domestically Al Hilal have been a major force in the Saudi Pro League winning four titles between 2016 and 2022.

Against this rich history Saudi launched their bid to develop an elite pro league by luring some of football’s biggest names to their shores.

The Ronaldo transfer proved that anything was possible in a country that boasted a strong and positive economic outlook. Sustainability has never been a concern for Saudi as they showed when signing one great player after the other to embellish many of their 18 professional clubs.

While Ronaldo, 38, and Benzema, 35, are on the wrong side of 30s, other big names are still in their early 30s like former Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and several stars that have joined from marquee clubs in Europe that include Chelsea, Man City and Bayern Munich.

Recruiting players who are still playing at a high level in Europe sends out a clear message that they are not interested in picking up anyone close to retirement.

It is believed that the volume of high-level signings, which include big-name coaches like England’s Steven Gerrard, Argentinian Ramon Diaz who coached River Plate to eight titles, and possibly even Jose Mourinho in the future, will provide an unprecedented rise in coaching standards ahead of the kingdom’s intended bid to host the 2030 Fifa World Cup.

Saudi Arabia, who also host the world’s richest horse race, the $20 million Saudi Cup in Riyadh, are looking to offer an enhanced sporting experience that can only benefit the whole Middle East region and sports hubs like the UAE, who are already well-established on the international calendar.

The growing focus on Saudi’s sporting ambition is sure to increase world attention and drive growth, tourism and investment in the country.

Meanwhile, the search for big-name football stars to complement the skills of players continues to gather steam.

Peter Hutton, a top professional in the sports industry, told the BBC: "I think the budgets are in place for a number of years -- you know, I don't see this slowing down.

"I've worked in sport for 40 years and I've never seen a project as big, as ambitious and as determined to be a success."

People are no longer surprised by the profile of players heading to the Middle East or the fees which they are being offered.

Perhaps, in a few years' time, people will not be surprised either when Saudi also builds a world-class national team on the back of its mega investments in its domestic football.

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