”Saudi Arabia is a beautiful country, and the football here is top-notch!” This is what Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo said to the media after successfully participating in the Saudi Football League on behalf of Riyadh.
Looking at the “scenery” from another angle, perhaps it is the arrival of many stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo that makes Saudi football become “top”. The Saudi League and Cristiano Ronaldo are somewhat mutually successful. Since the beginning of this year, the “Saudi Storm” has attracted the attention of European football. Big-name stars who were originally competing in the Premier League and Serie A have flocked to Saudi Arabia. What exactly is going on? On October 4, Beijing time, news came from FIFA that Saudi Arabia made a separate bid to host the 2034 World Cup. However, Saudi Arabia did not set off a “storm” just to host the World Cup…
Top players gathered in certain professional leagues, mostly due to the operation of sports organizations and sports capital. In 2023, behind these operations, it is revealed that the emerging sports market is booming!
The “Saudi Storm” is inevitable by chance
”We have excellent players and a league that is getting better and better. The Saudis deserve these wonderful things, because they themselves are very wonderful existences… and I am one of them now.” Ronaldo’s words, Of course, it can be seen as a compliment to the club from a player who joined the Saudi League, but the Saudi League is being feared by the five major European leagues, including the Premier League and Serie A, and is regarded as a rising competitor – at least in the competition for human resources. It is also an indisputable fact that it is a competitor in the world.
”The Saudi Arabian Football League is preparing to introduce top referees from the Premier League and European leagues!” The news came out at the end of September, and the European football world was really shocked. If this news had come out earlier this year, or earlier, perhaps not more people in Europe would have cared. Recall that earlier this year, when Saudi Arabia announced that it would introduce 50 European league stars, organizers of mainstream European leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga actually disagreed. Since the 1970s, whether it is the North American Soccer League (NASL) that introduced football king Pele, the Japanese J-League that introduced Zico and Lineker, or the Chinese Super League that introduced Drogba, Anelka, and Paulinho, , after all, it cannot shake the status of the European professional football market. In terms of competitive level, perhaps South America, which may not have a high degree of economic development, will pose a long-term and certain threat to the European leagues. But when it comes to local and global market development and maximization of commercial value, there is no one comparable to Europe in the field of football. South American leagues have almost become a reserve of European league players to some extent.
What’s going on in Saudi Arabia? Isn’t it like the United States and Japan did in those days, which introduced some first-class stars at the end of their careers at extremely high prices to attract popularity? When Saudi Arabia began to introduce Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Benzema, that is, to recruit the three top players from mainstream European leagues, many people still believed that the Saudi league was replicating the American and Japanese leagues of the year. After all, even the current top players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Benzema are both veterans over 35 years old, and Neymar is over 30 years old – they may be pursuing the last big contract in their career as professional players. Go to Saudi Arabia to play. But the Saudi league is currently attracting many stars in their playing years – such as the 28-year-old Belgian Denayer of Al-Hasa Conqueror and the 25-year-old Portuguese Ruben Neves of Riyadh Crescent. The Saudi Jeddah National Team even introduced 21-year-old Bega from Celta Vigo in La Liga. As a rising star, Bega has just emerged in the Spanish league and attracted much attention. However, after it was reported that he was coveted by many giants such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, he was intercepted by the Saudis. Napoli in Serie A offered a transfer fee of 36 million euros to invite Bega. In addition, Saudi Arabia immediately increased its investment to 40 million euros to hire in Spain. Real Madrid star Kroos directly commented “shameful” on Vega’s transfer news, complaining that he “wanted money rather than a future.”
But the career of a professional player is limited. In the face of super high salary, how many people will not be tempted? That year, Brazilian player Alan won the top scorer in the Europa League with Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Based on this alone, he has already entered the sights of European giants. But at that time, faced with the money thrown away by the Chinese Super League, Alan, who was in his prime, made a relatively reasonable choice – after all, with his strength, he may not be able to play the main force in a wealthy club for a long time, and it is even more difficult for him to join the Brazilian national team. Team. In China, he not only made money, but also became addicted to the international football team – although due to various reasons, he failed to help the Chinese team enter the Qatar World Cup.
Looking at the problem from Saudi Arabia’s perspective – since they have called for “introducing 50 European League stars”, of course it is impossible to just focus on veterans and issue invitations. After all, even though the level of sports rehabilitation disciplines has made great progress compared to the 1980s, not everyone can be like Ronaldo, who at the “advanced age” of 35 years old can still score goals more efficiently than most 28-year-olds. players. Furthermore, do you really think that the Saudis are dedicated to opening “nursing homes”?
Some people also say that it is because the Saudi league is currently rich in capital that it attracts European stars in their prime. This is just like the Chinese Super League Golden Yuan era in previous years, which also invited Alan, who was in his prime, and even invited Belgian stars Witsel and Carrasco, who are younger than Alan, to come and serve. However, a closer look at the start of the “Saudi Storm” shows that it is actually fundamentally different from the North American Professional League, the Japanese J-League, and the Chinese Super League. At that time, the North American Professional League invited Pele to join the New York Cosmos, claiming that it would attract Americans to love football through the arrival of the football king, so as to promote the development of football in North America; the introduction of big-name stars in the early days of the Japanese J-League was also to attract the people of the country to become fans. , to enhance the status of football in Japan. Looking back at the two leagues held by the United States and Japan in different eras – after Pele left, the North American professional league ceased to exist, and American football experienced the trough of the 1980s. Nowadays, most of the American national football players are serving in Europe, and the men’s football team The level of the national team has gradually improved; the same is true for the Japanese J-League. The football craze ignited by various big-name stars has finally made great progress in Japanese football. Now it seems to be a second-rate team in the world and a super-powerful team in Asia. But there are no superstars in the Japanese J-League. Similar to the United States, most Japanese internationals play in European leagues. The Saudi league is now introducing world-class stars, and it has accepted 50 players in a package and even suddenly opened its mouth – agreeing to introduce 8 foreign players to each team!
The main reason why Saudi Arabia did this is that there is too much money, more money than the American and Japanese leagues back then; at the same time, if you don’t do this, you can’t spend it! Spending 40 million euros for Bega is not outrageous – you must know that the 26-year-old Brazilian star Malcom transferred from Russia’s St. Petersburg Zenit team to Riyadh Crescent, and his transfer fee was 60 million euros. Let me ask you, in the current European football world, which other football club would pay 60 million euros for Malcom, who has one year left on his contract, and the funds flow into Russia? The Bundesliga and Serie A are full of free transfers with expiring contracts, and symbolic fees for good get-togethers and good breaks when contracts are about to expire. Even the Premier League, which has always been extravagant, has seen the strange incident of England international Harry Kane defecting from Manchester City to Bundesliga Bayern Munich for zero transfer fee. It is not difficult to see from this that the European football market is experiencing “troubled times”.
The “Saudi Storm” may seem accidental, but one of its inevitabilities is that Saudi capital and other capital in the Middle East that originally invested in the Premier League and other high-level European leagues encountered the “salary cap” system of European leagues. Masters, CEO of the Premier League, made it very clear: “It has taken us 30 years to reach our current position in terms of popularity, competitiveness and revenue sources.” Among European leagues, the Premier League has the overall management of the entire league. Rather than simply each club fighting independently, it is quite profitable in terms of collecting broadcasting license fees and other aspects. But the Premier League still has a salary cap system. This makes the Saudi sovereign funds that invest in Newcastle United and others feel quite passive. Sheikh Mansour Capital of the United Arab Emirates, which entered the Premier League earlier, has invested a lot, but can still win a balance and hold on to the top of the salary cap without being breached. As a latecomer, the Saudi sovereign fund, which wanted to quickly invest in the Premier League and achieve results, ran into big trouble. When investing in Newcastle United, what Saudi Capital wants is to overthrow the old king and become the new king of the Premier League, but it encounters the “difficulty” of having money that cannot be spent. You can buy people if you want, but you must strike a balance as soon as possible in terms of game day income, TV sharing, player wages, etc.
Compared with the big spenders back then, Saudi Arabian capital has also learned one thing – in today’s UK, due to the economic downturn, many income channels are unlikely to rise in price quickly. The Saudi sovereign fund intends to spend a lot of money without asking for a return, but the Premier League clubs have to refuse to accept the money due to various restrictions. Under such circumstances, Saudi capital will naturally flow elsewhere. When the world couldn’t find a suitable place to invest money, Saudi Arabia chose to create a league suitable for investing money.
The joining of so many foreign players has directly transformed the Saudi League into a professional league held in Saudi Arabia, with high-level athletes from Europe, South America and other countries participating, supplemented by Saudi players. In other words, when Cristiano Ronaldo, Malcom, and Bega went to Saudi Arabia to play football, they were just changing their jobs in another league. The Saudi league spent 846 million euros on signings in the summer window. It is full of big names and the level of competition is rising. Saudi players, on the contrary, are like “foreign players” playing in their home stadiums, “studying overseas” at home. The number of players on the field can be counted on one hand.
Whose league is it?
If you look closely at the Saudi Football League, the biggest difference from European football leagues is that the entire league is almost built with investment from the Saudi sovereign fund. For example, when it comes to purchasing players, Saudi Arabia does not have scouts from each club go to agents to inquire about prices. Instead, the sovereign fund comes forward to purchase players at the “national level” and then distribute them to each team. Compared with the European league teams that operate independently, and the Premier League that realizes broadcast revenue sharing, the Saudi league has a higher degree of concentration in operations. This is not because the Saudis do not understand the European way of doing business. In fact, when big news like Ronaldo joining the Saudi League was widely spread, some international football professional media ignored one piece of news – in January this year, Gary Cook, CEO of the Premier League Manchester City, was hired to serve as the executive of the Saudi League. President and Chief Executive Officer. Of course he understands what the Premier League is about. However, what seems regrettable to the Saudis is that in July this year, he resigned from Saudi Arabia and returned to England to serve as the CEO of Birmingham Football Club.
Some industry insiders commented that in recent years, Saudi Arabia has not only spent money on football, but has also invested in many professional sports products. For example, it has introduced a series of professional events such as golf, Formula One racing, cricket, tennis, horse racing, combat sports, etc., and even more entertaining projects such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) have also entered Saudi Arabia. Water sports, beach sports, and even seemingly niche professional events such as chess and e-sports can still gain a foothold in Saudi Arabia.
Behind these projects, there is often investment from the Saudi sovereign fund. So, does this mean that these professional sports competitions held in Saudi Arabia have become private entertainment projects for the extremely wealthy Saudi princes? In fact, the situation is not that simple. Just analyzing the Saudi sovereign fund, we can see that its funding sources are not only from the Saudi Central Bank, but also not only from Saudi companies, but also from Posco of South Korea, Uber of the United States, and Japanese video games. The company Capcom and others participated. The Saudi sovereign fund does not simply invest in professional sports. In fact, it invests more in many aspects of the global economy. For example, there are public reports that in 2020 alone, it acquired US$713.7 million in Boeing shares and US$522 million in Citigroup shares. Bank shares, $522 million stake in Facebook parent company Meta, and more. This is enough to illustrate the magnitude of the Saudi sovereign fund’s intentions – it has almost become a lever for Saudi Arabia to integrate into the world economy.
Returning to football, Masters mentioned that as far as he knows, Saudi Arabia hopes to create a professional league ranked among the top ten in the world by 2030. Judging from the player acquisition situation in the summer window of 2023, the Saudi League is not only among the top ten in the world, but is almost catching up to the top in the world. Saudi Arabia’s “Top Ten” plan is largely due to three reasons –
first, it hopes to rely on the “Saudi Storm” to attract global attention and successfully bid for the 2034 World Cup. This may be the main reason why Saudi Arabia is currently focusing on building its own league. On October 4, Beijing time, news came from FIFA that the 2030 World Cup will be co-hosted by Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Immediately afterwards, FIFA announced that after it invited members of the Asian Football Confederation and Oceania Football Confederation to participate in the bid for the 2034 World Cup, Saudi Arabia made a request for a separate bid. This makes the world feel that Saudi Arabia has introduced a large number of international stars before, with the main purpose of promoting its bid to host the World Cup.
Secondly, can the competitive level of Saudi football be greatly and steadily improved? Relying on short-term high investment can certainly drive Saudi people’s obsession with football. However, it should also be noted that Saudis have been interested in football for a long time, and Saudi Arabia’s devil’s home stadium is still somewhat famous in Asia. The Saudi national team is one of the more Asian teams to enter the World Cup. However, in the impression of the world, Saudi football has not changed qualitatively because of the long-term interest of Saudi people in football. It is not like the Japanese team that has made great and stable progress. Instead, it has often experienced tragedies in the World Cup matches-even if there are Highlight moments, such as at the World Cup in Qatar, Saudi Arabia occasionally showed its prowess and defeated Argentina 2-1, but Saudi Arabia’s results were not stable. Clubs currently see high investment in the short term, such as the Saudi League’s competition rules in which each team can have 8 foreign players, and the AFC Champions League’s “5+1” foreign aid rules, which include 1 Asian foreign player and a total of 6 foreign players. In the AFC Champions League, if the Saudi team wants to achieve dominance, it still needs its players to improve.
The third aspect is to steadily increase the value of the Saudi League. According to the plan disclosed by Saudi Arabia, in the future, it hopes to double the market value of the entire league and increase commercial revenue by 300% to 1.8 billion riyals (approximately US$480 million). It seems that although the Saudi league is currently buying players in Europe and spending more than 600 million US dollars in one summer window, it still hopes to be self-financing and even make a profit in the future – the Saudi sovereign fund also wants to make money. ah. To expect to achieve such profits, relying solely on the Saudi domestic market may not be enough. How to build a brand for the Saudi League and promote the Saudi League to enter the international market is indeed a new topic for Saudi Arabia.
Further analysis of these three major aspects – such as bidding to host the World Cup, is not difficult for Saudi Arabia to achieve. In Asia, since even Qatar can host the World Cup, Saudi Arabia, which has a deeper football tradition and a larger land area than Qatar, will naturally also be able to host the World Cup. It remains to be seen whether the Saudi league, in which foreign players currently play more than local players, can become a “European league” with a brand effect similar to that held in Saudi Arabia. If the Saudi league can maintain a high competitive level for a long time, in addition to brand premium, a side effect can be produced – it should more or less improve the level of the Saudi national team.
Sports is the best platform to change the West’s traditional stereotypes of Saudi Arabia and cultivate world public opinion and social media sentiment that is favorable to Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to the third aspect, it is even more important to realize that Saudi Arabia is not a “population desert”. Its population is more than 36 million, which is about half the population of Germany, 70% of the population of Italy, and higher than the Netherlands and Belgium. . Based on Saudi Arabia’s current per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of more than 30,000 US dollars, its domestic market should be able to host a high-level boutique league. What about overseas markets? From the birth of Al Jazeera in Arabia, we can see that the Arab world has now been able to create a cultural brand with international influence, and success in the sports field may also be possible.
The politics, economics and culture behind sports
Will the acquisition of Newcastle United by Saudi capital cause more commotion in the West, or will Ronaldo’s joining of the Saudi league cause more turmoil? Obviously the latter!
In the European leagues in recent years, there has been no shortage of capital investment from outside Europe. From the Glazer family’s acquisition of Manchester United by American capital in the early days of the Premier League, to the acquisition of Serie A clubs by capital from China, to the capital from the Middle East making waves in the Premier League and La Liga. But the real pressure that European leagues feel is that Saudi capital moves from behind the scenes to the front.
”Saudi Crown Prince Bin Salman has long realized that sports are the best platform to change the West’s traditional stereotypes of Saudi Arabia and cultivate world public opinion and social media sentiments that are favorable to Saudi Arabia. Through top sports events and superstars, not only can we avoid Huge political controversies can also use the influence of sports events and superstars to establish new diplomatic relations, trade agreements, investment agreements, and attract more tourists to increase Saudi Arabia’s tourism revenue, which naturally reduces energy export revenue in Saudi Arabia. proportion in the economy.” After the “Saudi Storm” hit Europe in the summer of 2023, some media commented, “Sports plays a huge role in the political, economic, cultural and social ecosystem of any modern country. The Saudi League is no longer a professional football league, but a ‘promotional film’ for Saudi Arabia’s national transformation strategy.”
How does Saudi Arabia want to transform? From the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran earlier this year, and the subsequent formal membership of the BRICS family with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Iran, and Ethiopia, we can see that Saudi Arabia is also increasing its speed of integrating into the world, and Saudi Arabia is not only cooperating with its allies In dealing with the United States, it has also launched diplomatic activities from multiple angles and levels. It is not surprising that such a more dynamic Saudi Arabia uses football, the world’s number one sport, to create sports products.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the rise of South Sudanese basketball is ostensibly due to former NBA star Luol Deng recruiting some NBA stars with South Sudanese ancestry to form a relatively strong national team. A closer analysis shows that FIBA hopes to increase the influence of the Men’s Basketball World Cup, or to increase the market value of the Men’s Basketball World Cup. From the time when only amateur players were allowed to participate – in fact, it was a boycott of NBA players – to allowing NBA players to participate in the game in the early 1990s, FIBA has tasted the benefits of high-level players joining the game. In particular, the Men’s Basketball World Cup’s market share in the United States, the home of basketball, continues to increase. But how to get more NBA players to participate in the Men’s Basketball World Cup? The liberalization of naturalized players and a more relaxed player nationality registration system than FIFA has allowed Luol Deng to form a competitive South Sudanese basketball team. So far, it has its successes.
The benefit that South Sudan gained from participating in the Men’s Basketball World Cup main event is that its international reputation increased. In the future, this country, which became independent only in 2011, will have more basketball players join leagues in various countries. The most recent case is that on October 3, the Shandong team signed South Sudanese national player Shayok. The export of players certainly has the potential to bring some benefits to clubs in South Sudan.
When it comes to player output, we have to mention Brazilian football – the 2023-2024 season has begun. There are a total of 92 Brazilian players playing in the five major European leagues, the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1. At first glance, this number is not low. But in fact, this number hit a new low in the past 23 years. Is it that emerging markets are competing for more Brazilian foreign players, or are more Brazilian players choosing to go to domestic clubs, or is the competitive level and competitiveness of Brazilian players beginning to decline in the five major European leagues? Many European sports media have singled out Brazilian players to speak less in Europe, but they have not seen that Brazil’s number one star Neymar has recently signed a contract with the Saudi Arabian League and joined the Riyadh Crescent. Whether it is the Japanese J-League, the Korean K-League, the Chinese Super League, the Indonesian League, or the Thai League, they are also attracting more and more Brazilian players to come and seek gold. Undoubtedly, behind the “Saudi Storm” is the rise of emerging sports markets…