Inside the Saudi Soccer Gold Rush

At the same time, the league found that its valuations at times varied wildly from those of its team presidents, who were apparently more than happy to use government money to pay well above market value. When Al-Hilal submitted a bulk offer for five Chelsea players, officials privately fumed at what they perceived to be a massively inflated fee, one that might drive up prices elsewhere.

Within a couple of weeks, the league realized it needed to change its approach, to find a way to impose some sort of order on the chaos. The job of doing so would fall to an official who had built an influential, if low-profile, career in Saudi sports. That man, Saad Al-Lazeez, was about to become arguably the most important person in European soccer.

One of Van Winckel’s tasks after taking on a post as the technical director of the Saudi Arabian soccer federation in 2015 was to arrange a tour of a handful of major European clubs. He took, as his guests, a number of officials from the federation and a couple of team presidents. The aim was to see what Saudi Arabia could learn from Europe’s most famous talent factories.

Van Winckel booked the hotels, organized the visits and arranged the travel. Although he was traveling with influential Saudis accustomed to a certain standard of luxury, he made a point of operating on what he describes as a reasonable budget. “We were not in five-star luxury hotels,” he said. “It was nice, but we did not have Mercedes drivers or anything. I drove myself from Dortmund to Ajax, for example.”

It was a good decision. At the end of the trip, Van Winckel not only gave a detailed presentation to a hundred or so staff members at the Saudi federation, showcasing what he and his cohort had learned, but he also submitted a full set of receipts for the trip.

He had been sent by Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad, the minister for the General Sports Authority, the precursor to the Ministry of Sports. But it was his vice president for technical and investment affairs who signed off on the expenses: Al-Lazeez.

Al-Lazeez has taken the same fastidious approach since replacing a British executive, Garry Cook, as chairman of the Saudi Pro League in May. Colleagues describe him, variously, as urbane, effective and smart. His English is “impeccable.” He is, as Van Winckel put it, “someone who thinks in the macro.”