The big disruption – Saudi money in football

The biggest football story of the summer has been the astronomical deals being done by clubs from Saudi Arabia’s Pro League to lure some of the game’s biggest stars. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kanté have all accepted mind-boggling sums to join Saudi clubs, with offers also made for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé.

While this site is attentive to the negative impact of money upon football competitions, one of the underlying premises of the analysis provided here (such as in the competitive inequality project) is that its actual effects tend to be gradual, only really revealing themselves fully across a long time period. But that’s because, so far at least, money in club football has played an evolutionary role: yes, competition formats have been subtly reshaped by the influence of the larger clubs, but this has all taken place within the context of existing competitions within Europe’s established domestic leagues and continental cup competitions. And, the only real attempt to break with that evolution – the European Super League – quickly collapsed as it became clear that the money men behind the proposals had pushed beyond anything fans would be prepared to accept.

Here now, though, we see an external influence with the power to disrupt the established footballing order: a determined political actor with deep wells of money and ambitions to cement itself as a prime global player – both in the sporting world and in broader geopolitical terms.

But how should fans react to this? Is this just another futile boom-and-bust attempt to wrestle footballing power away from Europe’s elite leagues? Is it all just an elaborate PR exercise to distract from Saudi Arabia’s grim human rights record? Or is there a genuine potential for this to change club football? In this post, I’ll examine a range of possible scenarios for how things might play out, then in a second post I’ll consider the moral questions raised by the involvement of such a problematic state actor in top level sport (the second post sprawled into a three-parter: part one is here).

Scenario 1: the Saudi Pro League fizzles out

While the response to this Saudi spending spree has almost universally been one of amazement at the sheer scale of the numbers involved, many seem quite relaxed or even dismissive of its ability to have a profound effect upon the footballing landscape, reasoning that the European game is just too dominant to be effectively challenged.

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence to support this idea would be to highlight that we have been here before in the recent past. In 2016 and 2017, it was Chinese teams who suddenly started throwing huge piles of money at high profile players, attracting the likes of Oscar, Hulk and Carlos Tevez. Pundits highlighted the ambition of China’s president Xi Jinping to turn the country into a footballing powerhouse through investment in youth development and efforts to build a top class domestic league.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, not averse to following the money, had taken the manager’s role at Shanghai SIPG and was effusive on the prospects for the new league arguing that “everyone should be worried” about the emergence of the new league: “The money is here and the football is getting better… This is reality for a long time… China will soon be a world power in football.”

He wasn’t alone, though, in suggesting that the political will and sheer economic might of China made the new league “a grave threat” to the financial dominance of the big European leagues. Arsenal’s then-manager Arsene Wenger warned of a danger that “Chinese offers become the benchmark for Europe. You cannot compete with that.”

The reality, however, turned out to be quite different. Concern quickly grew within China that the outsized spending needed to draw stars from Europe was draining money that could have been invested into homegrown development. As a result spending caps were soon imposed. Equally, the football sector continued to draw the attention of Chinese state anti-corruption efforts while, under tighter economic circumstances, exacerbated by the impact of Covid controls, it became clear that the economic foundation just was not there to support continued extravagant spending. Some corporate financing was withdrawn, clubs folded as it became clear they could not pay their bills.

The Chinese Super League still exists, but the idea it could be a serious challenger to European leagues now looks foolish.

Is what we are currently seeing with the Saudi Pro League just a rerun? A flurry of unrestrained spending, which will burn fast and bright, but will fizzle out in acrimony.

There is certainly evidence to support that perspective. Some of the clubs involved in this summer’s lavish spending have outstanding dispute resolution cases pending with FIFA due to non-payment of player wages, which leave them unable to register star signings until resolved. Equally, frequent reports of Saudi royals failing to settle their bills might give sustenance to the opinion that this spending is not reflective of any sort of long-term shift in the football landscape. Like the Chinese, the Saudis will come to realise just how much of a bedrock is provided by the tradition and infrastructure of European clubs and leagues, the buy-in of both local and global fans, the matchday atmosphere, the structures for scouting and youth development.

In short, it is much easier to transplant a few stars than it is to create something vibrant and attractive enough to be sustainable in the long-term in the cutthroat world of global sport.

Scenario 2: a place in the pecking-order

Ultra-pessimistic predictions for football in Saudi could easily be contested, however. There are some indications that Saudi ambition is based upon a long-haul commitment that means we are not dealing with just another fly-by-night league. There seems to be real impetus from within Saudi (or, at least, from crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – who is the only figure who really matters), as part of its ‘Vision 2030’ strategy, to shape the kingdom to be a key player, both in geopolitical affairs and in the global economy, while shifting beyond a narrow reliance upon oil reserves. Football could easily be seen as a vital component of this shift, a sector that actually remains incredibly good value for money for ambitious states seeking to raise their profile.

Indeed, when seen in the context of some of their other projects, such as the half-trillion sci-fi vision for the entirely new city-region of Neom (featuring a 170km long but just 200m wide cavernous linear city sheltered from the desert sun by giant mirrored skyscraping walls) the sums involved in the current football splurge are comparatively modest. Yet, in terms of grabbing the world’s attention, they have paid off handsomely.

Another indicator that we are dealing with more of a long-haul scheme is the fact that the entire effort is reported to be being closely overseen and coordinated by officials at the league level. It is not, therefore, a free-for-all where the clubs end up competing against each other and bidding prices up, but rather an attempt to drive the league’s development collectively.

But, even if they are serious, where might this realistically get the Saudis?

I think most people would forecast that the ceiling for the Saudi Pro League is actually not much beyond the stature it has already achieved. That is, they would put it in competition with the MLS as the highest profile non-European league, one whose teams would be made up of a mix of locals, a smattering of mid-range players in their prime and some star names in the ‘one last payday’ stage of their careers. Progress from this point would therefore consist in stabilising the current profile of the league into something sustainable over the long-term, as there is little hope of pushing its development any further.

There’s a lot to be said for this being the most plausible aim for Saudi football. But, if you are a country in the business of pushing urban visions at the sci-fi fringes of possibility and you have near limitless funds at your disposal, are you really going to be satisfied with a comfortable seat in the second tier of global football leagues?

Scenario 3: a chance to eclipse the old order

Most of the discussion of the Saudi moves this summer has been subtly dismissive. Not in the sense of ignoring it or playing it down – we’ve all been staggered by the scale of the deals that are being done. But the shock is often accompanied by comments about this bidding up the prices that top Premier League teams, or other major European clubs, will have to pay from now on, always carrying the assumption that these clubs will, of course, keep up and match, or eventually outpace, the Saudi upstart.

But how confident of this can we be? If the Saudis make this level of funding available for not just a single summer of splashes, but for four or five years? If just a handful of top players in their prime (Mbappé?) also decide that the sums available in Arabia are offers that cannot be refused? If TV networks across the globe start to show a new league that features some of the biggest names in football (perhaps Saudi money might even be put towards a buy-out of broadcasters like Sky Sports), can we be sure of what viewing figures would look like? Is it impossible that they establish themselves as a genuine challenger to the major European leagues?

Now, there’s a lot of ifs in that paragraph, so I’m not saying it’s the most likely outcome. But I think it is inevitable that someone among those coordinating the Pro League plans has also asked these questions.

There are also two further things that might open a door for greater ambitions. The first concerns the general economic climate of the West. Beyond the daily struggles of many people to pay ever rising bills, there has also been a straightening of circumstances among the billionaire class. Not so much, at least yet, in terms of their personal circumstances, but rather that the general business climate has changed. An era of cheap credit and easy money, which had lasted solidly since the financial crisis of 2008, is over. Suddenly, willing investors are slightly more scarce and businesses that speculated too rashly or extended themselves too far are worrying about their balance sheets. We’ve already seen some bubbles deflate: crypto is no longer headed “to the moon”; streaming services have been slashing budgets at a similar rate as tech giants have shed workers. Some of the giants of football, many of whom are massively indebted and over-leveraged, also look to be on shaky ground. They are, therefore, not in a great position to mount a defence of their status, particularly when facing off against one of the few actors in the global economy who currently possesses secure access to large funds.

The fact that financial futures of some of football’s giants are insecure has been highlighted as one of the prime motivations for them (especially Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus) to have committed to the European Super League plans. The collapse of those proposals is the other factor that might open a sliver of a chance for the Saudi Pro League. Fans in Europe have made it quite clear that their attachment to existing tournament formats and ideals of open competition are not negotiable; they will not agree to any re-engineering of the sport in order to design the kind of hyper-capitalist, globally marketable product that rich owners or investors might desire. And the opinions of fans have been backed here not just by footballing authorities such as UEFA, but also by governments, with moves such as the UK fan-led review of the game under Conservative MP Tracey Crouch.

Such obstacles simply do not exist in Saudi. The authoritarian Saudi state faces no constitutional requirement to respond to anyone but its ruler, nor is there any hard budget constraint given the continued demand for oil. If an intensely marketable football product, optimised for global consumption, is to emerge, maybe the blank slate offered within Saudi provides a simpler foundation than trying to reshape a European game with rich traditions and histories.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to this scenario is the pulling power of those very traditions. Fan attachment is stickier than any other consumer loyalty. Most watchers of the game, even those whose experience is solely through television, already have their ties to specific shirts, locales and histories. Players want to pull on particular, storied colours. The all white of Real Madrid or the (I’ll confess I had to look this up) yellow and black stripes of Al-Ittihad? It would take a long period of sustained development of the Saudi game for the latter to have any similar pull to it. As the Chinese Super League soon found to its cost, it is not a quick or easy process to build enough of a fanbase for football investment to start truly paying.

So while a slim chance exists, this scenario still feels unlikely. If Mbappé ends up at Al-Hilal, I might reconsider, though…

Scenario 4: a catalyst for change in European football

For anyone looking to understand Saudi strategy here, it is instructive to look at what has happened within golf. Here, initially money from Saudi’s PIF investment fund was used to back a breakaway tour, which managed to recruit some high profile names like Phil Mickelson and Sergio García, but also received fierce resistance from figures such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and met with sanctions for those taking part from the established PGA tour. But, then, earlier this summer, it was announced that the two tours would merge, in a move many have seen as a backdoor Saudi takeover.

Now, this is not to say that the exact same thing is likely to occur in football, but a couple of aspects of the case of golf are worth highlighting. The first is that the Saudis have no issue if their plans upset a deeply established order or if they cause major division and rancour. They will be determined and ruthless in pursuit of their goals. The second is that Saudi investment appears to have an adaptive strategy that can work at multiple levels: they did not simply dig-in on advancing LIV by keeping on trying to entice players to the new tour, but also sought to deal with the sport’s other authorities in order to advance their aims.

In football, we can already see signs of this flexibility in the fact that as well as PIF backing the Pro League, and indeed having ownership of four of its clubs, at the same time they have overall control of Newcastle United, so also have an interest if established leagues maintain their status at the top of the game. (Some worry about the potential for these multiple ownerships creating scope for collusion, for example by potentially assisting Newcastle in evading Financial Fair Play regulations, which is certainly worth keeping an eye on.)

But could this be part of a broader strategy? That the massive spending this summer is, to an extent at least, specifically aimed at playing off options at different levels by first inducing stress or panic among Europe’s established giants?

Why might they want to do this? Well, presenting a rival league with very deep pockets could be the spark that causes Europe’s giants to once again agitate for more radical reform options to head-off the challenge. We could see a return for Super League ideas, or some other significant shake-up of the way European football goes about its business, as a way to resist the perceived threat. This might then open up investment opportunities for a stake in any new competition, or at the very least enable Saudi-controlled clubs, such as Newcastle, to be placed at the heart of any proposals.

Again, this scenario involves some speculation on my part. I think, though, that fans need to be aware that the knock-on effects of current Saudi spending carry varied possible threats with them.

How worried should we be?

I think much of the discussion of the Saudi Pro League has underestimated the disruption it is capable of causing. Yes, there’s a chance of it going the way of the Chinese Super League, but there’s also a chance that football follows golf in descending into acrimony and chaos as the impact of the otherworldly sums of money currently being spent continue to ripple out.

There’s one further obstacle to Saudi aims, however, which is that enough people within football – fans, players, authorities – resist cooperation with their plans on ethical grounds. There are, after all, very real concerns about the fact that what we are dealing with here is an authoritarian religious state that regularly violates basic human rights of its citizens, while aiding the progress of a hideous and prolonged war in neighbouring Yemen. How should we, as sports fans, respond to these factors? That will be the subject of the next post.