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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Saudi Soccer League Establishes Substantial Fund to Attract International Superstars

The lists are complete, and the funding is in place. The Saudi Arabian football league is hoping to recruit more star players like Cristiano Ronaldo. And it’s counting on cash—the one thing it knows it can deliver in greater quantity than any of the other leagues—to seal the deals.

The plan seems to be a centralised effort — supported at the highest levels in Saudi Arabia, and funded by the kingdom’s huge sovereign wealth fund — to transform the domestic league, a footnote on the global football stage, into a destination for top talent, much like the Saudi-financed campaign to dominate golf through the new LIV series.

Five times FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo has paved the path. After the 2022 FIFA World Cup, he signed a contract with Saudi club Al-Nassr reportedly for $200 million per season. The Saudi Premier League lost Al-Nassr by a single point in the last week of the season last month, but the appearance of Ronaldo alone was a triumph for the league’s organisers since it brought unprecedented attention to the league.

According to interviews via agents, television executives, Saudi sports officials, and consultants hired to execute the project—the details of which have not previously been reported—the Saudi league is considering whether to centralised coordinate more big-money signings to distribute talent evenly among the biggest teams since Ronaldo’s arrival. Because the transactions were confidential, the persons spoke on the condition of anonymity.

British chief executive of the Saudi league Garry Cook has been entrusted with carrying them out. Cook is a former Nike executive who temporarily controlled Manchester City when it was purchased by the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates. Cook did not reply to a request for comment through email. When asked for reaction, league authorities remained silent.

But the attempt is reminiscent of a similar plan from a decade ago, when China spent heavily to gain prominence in international football discussions. This audacious scheme seems to have failed due to contract breaches, economic collapse, and the coronavirus pandemic.

A sudden change in direction or an inability to sign the sort of top players being chased might undermine the aspirations for the Saudi league to become the leading domestic competition in Asia. The players, in signing with such organisations, would be joining a group that has historically been present at arbitration proceedings to demand unpaid fees and salary.

Interviews with those involved in the initiative have revealed that the league, and not the clubs, would be responsible for centrally negotiating player transfers and assigning players to certain teams, a strategy somewhat to the one Major League Soccer used when it expanded internationally. In much of the rest of the globe, clubs typically buy and transfer players bilaterally, thus centralised acquisitions would be an exception.

A sudden change in direction or an inability to sign the sort of top players being chased might undermine the aspirations for the Saudi league to become the leading domestic competition in Asia. The players, in signing with such organisations, would be joining a group that has historically been present at arbitration proceedings to demand unpaid fees and salary.

Interviews with those involved in the initiative have revealed that the league, and not the clubs, would be responsible for centrally negotiating player transfers and assigning players to certain teams, a strategy somewhat to the one Major League Soccer used when it expanded internationally. In much of the rest of the globe, clubs typically buy and transfer players bilaterally, thus centralised acquisitions would be an exception.

Officials with knowledge of the situation have speculated that the Saudi war fund is as big as the roster of possible new players identified by the league. Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of the Kingdom and led by the strong crown prince of the kingdom, Mohammed bin Salman, has recently invested heavily in the league and the teams.

A massive refurbishment of Al-Shabab stadium in northern Riyadh is being funded by the Saudi Arabian ministry of sports, but al-Baltan has complained bitterly about a lack of assistance, being careful not to criticise the government or the PIF by name.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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