The lists have been drawn up and the financing secured. Saudi Arabia is looking to lure some of the world’s best known soccer players to join Cristiano Ronaldo in its national league. And to close the deals, it is relying on money, the one commodity it knows it can offer more of than any of its rival leagues.
Similar in ambition to the Saudi-financed campaign to dominate golf through the new LIV series, the plan appears to be a centralized effort — supported at the highest levels in Saudi Arabia, and financed by the kingdom’s huge sovereign wealth fund — to turn the country’s domestic league, a footnote on the global soccer stage, into a destination for top talent.
To make that happen, Saudi clubs are already approaching players receptive to moving to the kingdom with some of the highest annual salaries in sports history. The deals could require in excess of $1 billion for wages for some 20 foreign players.
Since Ronaldo arrived, the Saudi league has been considering whether to centrally coordinate more big-money signings in order to distribute talent evenly among the biggest teams, according to interviews with agents, television executives, Saudi sports officials and consultants hired to execute the project, the details of which have not previously been reported. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the deals involved were private.
In recent weeks, leaks about huge offers to famous players have mounted: Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in December, is said to have been tempted by a contract even richer than Ronaldo’s Saudi deal; and the French striker Karim Benzema, the reigning world player of the year, has reportedly agreed to leave Real Madrid for a nine-figure deal to play in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi league’s British chief executive, Garry Cook, a former Nike executive who briefly ran Manchester City after it was bought by the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has been tasked with executing the plans. Cook did not respond to an email seeking comment. League officials also did not respond to requests for comment about the plans.
The project comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong performance by Saudi Arabia at last year’s World Cup in Qatar. The team’s run included a stunning victory over the eventual champion, Argentina, which stoked pride on the Saudi streets and in the halls of power in Riyadh. The project’s goal is not so much to make the Saudi league an equal of century-old competitions like England’s Premier League or other top European competitions, but to increase Saudi influence in the sport, and perhaps boost its profile as it bids for the 2030 World Cup.
But the effort also is reminiscent of a similar scheme a decade ago in which China sought to force its way into the global soccer conversation through a series of high-profile and high-dollar acquisitions. That bold plan, eventually marred by broken contracts, economic implosions and the coronavirus pandemic, is now seemingly at an end.
The plans for the Saudi league to become the dominant domestic competition in Asia are similarly subject to the whims of the country’s leadership, and could yet be derailed by a sudden change of direction, or an ability to sign the kind of elite talents being pursued. The players, too, would be committing to contracts with teams that in the past have been regular attendees at arbitration hearings claiming unpaid fees and salaries.
According to the interviews with people familiar with the project, the league, and not the clubs, would centrally negotiate player transfers and assign players to certain teams, in a model similar to one used by Major League Soccer as it built its global profile. Centralized signings would be a departure from what is typical in much of the rest of the world, where clubs directly acquire and trade players independently.
The size of the Saudi war chest is unclear, but officials briefed on the subject say it is as hefty as the list of players the league has identified as potential recruits. Much of the money invested in the league and the clubs in recent times has come from the Public Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund chaired by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The fund has signed 20-year commercial agreements worth tens of millions of dollars with the four most popular clubs in the Saudi Premier League. Those deals will require the teams, two from Riyadh and two from the port city of Jeddah, to play games at new arenas in entertainment complexes being built by PIF subsidiaries. The PIF also sponsors the league itself through one of the companies in its portfolio, the real estate developer Roshn.
According to one of the people briefed on the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss them publicly, the goal is for the four biggest teams to field three top foreign players each, and for another eight players to be distributed among the remaining 12 teams in the league.
The move for greater centralization of the league would end a period of autonomy granted to the clubs, and is further indication of the Saudi state’s interest in using sports as part of a drive to alter perceptions of the kingdom on the global stage, and diversify its economy away from oil. Saudi Arabia has been among the biggest spenders in global sports in recent years, bringing major events to the kingdom and investing in sports properties.
PIF has been the driving force behind much of that, too. Two years ago it acquired Newcastle United, an English Premier League club, and through its funding and smart recruitment helped it to achieve its best league finish in decades and a place in next season’s Champions League. The Saudi oil company, Aramco, is a major sponsor of the Formula 1 auto racing series. But perhaps the PIF’s splashiest efforts have been in golf, where it has poured billions into creating LIV, the rival competition to the established tours in North America and Europe.
All of those projects have attracted scrutiny amid claims Saudi Arabia is using its investments in sports to divert attention from its human rights record. But the golf series, in particular, has shown that Saudi Arabia’s interest in sports may not be deterred even if the promised financial bonanza does not arrive. And Saudi officials have vigorously denied “sportswashing” allegations, arguing that some of the motivations behind their push into global sports include catering to their sports-loving population and encouraging greater physical activity in a country where obesity and diabetes are common.
Discussions with potential soccer recruits and their agents are underway. Saudi Arabia’s sudden and cash-soaked presence is likely to create further chaos in soccer’s typically frenzied summer trading window, which typically runs from June through August.
Beefing up the four best teams may not be universally popular in the kingdom, which has its own rich soccer history and where the sport is passionately followed. Teams not considered to be counted in the elite group are already expressing frustration at the prospect of being left behind.
The sense of unfairness has been felt most visibly at Al-Shabab, the third-largest club in the capital, Riyadh, which has had to contend with living in the shadows of its prominent rivals Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal and their two Jeddah-based counterparts, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli.
“I have buried the ‘big four’ myth with my own hands,” the Al-Shabab president Khalid al-Baltan told reporters at the end of last season, when Al-Ahli was relegated to the second division for the first time in its history. Al-Baltan’s team dominated the Saudi league in the 1990s, when it was home to stars such as Fuad Anwar Amin and Saeed al-Owairan, who led Saudi Arabia to the knockout stage in the kingdom’s first World Cup appearance in 1994.
While Saudi Arabia’s ministry of sports is currently funding a major renovation of Al-Shabab stadium in northern Riyadh, al-Baltan has complained bitterly about a lack of support — while taking care to avoid criticizing the government or the PIF by name.
“The gap is getting too large, the financial situation does not allow us to compete with other clubs,” al-Baltan said during a news conference last week, as he wondered aloud how Al-Shabab was supposed to compete when Ronaldo’s salary for one season is four times the size of his club’s annual budget.
“Am I expected to close that huge gap myself?” he asked. “My car is a small Japanese sedan, and I’m somehow expected to race against Lamborghinis and Ferraris. If I don’t win then I’m bad? This is not logical.”