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Cash Splashers – A Look Into the Brains Behind the Saudi Pro League’s Outrageous Summer Spending Spree

Cash+Splashers+-+A+Look+Into+the+Brains+Behind+the+Saudi+Pro+League%E2%80%99s+Outrageous+Summer+Spending+Spree

The final days of 2022 were anything but normal for soccer fans. Less than two weeks after the culmination of one of the most thrilling World Cups ever, the great Pele passed away, and the football world fell into shock and mourning, as many paid tribute to one of the most prolific goalscorers of all time. On December 30, 2022, one day after Pele’s passing, a piece of transfer news broke that caught the eye of all of the world’s soccer fans. Little did they know at the time, but a revolution was underway, and less than a year later, it’s in full swing.

 

Ronaldo’s rebellious fallout

In order to build some context around this bit of news, we must go back to November 2022, about a week before the Qatar World Cup kicked off, and talk about the buzz that was circulating around Cristiano Ronaldo. Arguably the greatest European footballer ever, Ronaldo was coming off a rough stretch with Manchester United. Having signed with the Red Devils in 2021—twelve years after he left United for Real Madrid—Ronaldo was working under his third manager in a year and a half, Dutchman Erik Ten Hag. Ten Hag was very successful with his previous club (perennial Dutch giants Ajax), so it was expected he would be able to fit Ronaldo in his system and take United back to their peak.

Ten Hag did revitalize United, but in the process, benched Ronaldo. It turns out that Ten Hag’s system needed a forward who could do some defensive work, win the ball back, and counter attack, but CR7 had lost his juice, and was unable to fit into the system, so he wound up playing less. Ronaldo got all riled up: he stormed into the locker room early during Man United’s 2-0 win against Tottenham before dropping a scathing interview with British broadcaster Piers Morgan in which he criticized the club and its owners.  By the time the World Cup kicked off, Ronaldo ripped up his United contract and played the entire World Cup as a free agent. Upon the tournament’s conclusion in mid-December 2022, he quietly searched for a new home. And out of nowhere, Fabrizio Romano, a journalist for The Guardian known for his precision and quickness in covering soccer transfer news, dropped the bombshell story that shocked the world: the legendary Cristiano Ronaldo was going to Saudi Arabia.

Ronaldo specifically chose to join Al-Nassr, a club very much on the rise. Founded in the 50s, they have won the Saudi League nine times, most recently in the 2018-19 season. Fast forward to the midway point of the 2022-23 season and they were chasing their tenth title. The club had ambition, so going there was not a bad idea. But, the main reason was obviously the money. Big money. 

Reports from many sources, including Fabrizio Romano, said that Ronaldo’s salary was once worth $200 million a year, and that the contract, which will run until 2025, is worth over $500 million. Ronaldo became the highest paid athlete in the world upon his signature, and it brought plenty of attention to his new club, who saw an exponential rise in followers on social media. However, it also brings even further attention to the country CR7 now calls home, and more importantly, brightens an already-gleaming light shining down on the ambitious political figure behind not only the rise of his country’s soccer league, but the country itself.

Mohamed bin Salman and his Vision 2030

The signing of star players like Ronaldo is one of the latest moves by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) in his journey to open up his country, shake up its economy, and improve his public image. According to its website, Vision 2030 aims to make the economy more diverse and sustainable, and looks to make Saudi Arabia less reliant on its most valuable export: oil. MBS also wants Saudi Arabia to be a major player in international trade. Saudi Arabia is also looking to expand sectors such as manufacturing, retail, technology, and tourism. MBS led efforts to invest in advertising his country across the world. Now, you may be asking yourself: “What is there to do in Saudi Arabia?”. Well, MBS is working on that, too. Most notably, construction began on the ambitious Qiddiya project in 2019, which will include the largest Six Flags theme park in the world.

Domestically, MBS is also welcoming Western pop culture into Saudi Arabia, what once was a closed-off, religiously conservative country from the rest of the world. Women are now allowed to drive, and movie theaters are opening across the country and showing Western art (sadly, the first movie shown was The Emoji Movie). Imagine being a Saudi citizen whose introduction to Sir Patrick Stewart was seeing his performance as Poop). And of course, sports has been a key sector with investment from MBS and his government. We will touch on that later.

This may sound all well and good, but this project has come amidst plenty of controversy. Saudi intervention in Yemen has catalyzed the development of the civil war there. MBS has strengthened ties with Vladimir Putin and China. A dispute with Qatar in the late 2010s needed U.S. intervention in order to be resolved. However, in particular, there have been heavy crackdowns on criticism, especially on human rights activists and dissidents who criticize MBS. Jamal Khasoggi, a Saudi dissident and journalist who worked for the Washington Post, was found brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. The next month, after investigation, the CIA reported that MBS himself ordered multiple agents to execute Khashoggi. MBS and the Saudi government repeatedly denied those claims, but drew criticism from, among others, Joe Biden.

For the most part, MBS has dodged those obstacles and has looked ahead to target sports. To do so, he has used the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia’s state-owned investment fund to attract Western athletes and fans to Saudi athletics. There are two prominent examples of MBS’s investment in sports. LIV Golf was founded in 2021 and offered PIF-funded prizes and contracts that prominent golfers like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson found too good to pass on. The new golf tour was subject to intense scrutiny with questions directly related to human rights controversies. PGA golfers denounced LIV Golf, and antitrust lawsuits were filed left, right and center. However, in June 2023, it was announced the PGA Tour and LIV Golf would merge together, with PGA Tour CEO Jay Monahan seeming optimistic about the potential of the merger, while also acknowledging backlash from PGA Tour members.

Now, golf may be popular, but soccer is the most popular sport in the nation. Saudi Arabia’s recent resurgence on the international stage has been notable. The men’s national team qualified for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, pulling off an upset win against eventual champions (Argentina) in the latter tournament. However, Saudi involvement in the sport has been notable. In 2021, the PIF completed its takeover of Newcastle United, a former English giant that had been struggling throughout the previous decade. The money invested in Newcastle has since been used on improvements to the club and has helped Newcastle return to the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s top club competition, for the first time in twenty years. However, the PIF’s investment in the Saudi domestic league is the most ambitious investment of them all. 

New Look Pro League

Prior to Ronaldo’s arrival, the Saudi Pro League was already making big changes. In April 2022, the Saudi Football Federation announced that the 2023/24 season would be the first under an expanded format. The league would expand from 16 to 18 teams, with two extra clubs earning promotion from the second division in 22/23. In June 2023, after seeing Ronaldo spark a massive rise in Al-Nassr’s average attendance, the PIF then made a crucial move, looking to attract the biggest names in soccer. The fund bought 75% of the following four clubs:

  • Al-Nassr: Despite signing Ronaldo, Al-Nassr wound up falling from first to second in the table after a poor run of games. However, Ronaldo and teammate Anderson Talisca each took up a place in the top five on the Pro League’s scoring charts, so it was no surprise that Al-Nassr were chosen on the basis of CR7’s presence.
  • Al-Hilal: As the only club to have been both Saudi league champions and runners-up more than ten times each entering the current season, Al-Hilal are the Saudi Pro League’s most decorated club. They won the league in 21/22, but finished third in 22/23.
  • Al-Ittihad: Led by the top scorer in the league, Moroccan striker Abderrazak Hamdallah, Al-Ittihad took first place from Al-Nassr on match-week 20 and held on until the end.
  • Al-Ahli: They may have suffered relegation to the second tier in 21/22, but Al-Ahli came straight back up thanks to their defensive record.

With the PIF providing a bulk of the funds for these four clubs, as soon as the Saudi summer transfer window opened on the first of July, the four clubs led the way for the rest of the teams as they looked to attract the most decorated and elite names in world football.

Big Money for Big Names

The Saudis dominated during the Saudi transfer window, signing several big name players in the process. A complete list of player transfers for every club can be found on Transfermarkt, but we will focus mainly on the four teams funded by the PIF.

To start, three of the four clubs hired new coaches. Al-Hilal found their man first. After Ramon Diaz resigned in May to tend to family matters, the club confirmed his replacement on July 1: former Benfica manager Jorge Jesus, who had previous history with the club. Al-Nassr got their new coach five days later. Rudi Garcia’s replacement would be Luis Castro, a coach known for his short stint with Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk, where he won a Ukrainian Premier League title and beat Real Madrid home and away in the Champions League in 2020. Three weeks later, Al-Ahli found their new coach in Matthias Jaissle, who lost just nine of 93 games in two years with Red Bull Salzburg. Whilst the new coaches created buzz, the new players created even more buzz. 

Champions Al-Ittihad made the first big move of the summer, signing five-time Champions League-winning French striker Karim Benzema in early June, after his contract with Real Madrid expired. Compatriot N’Golo Kante, regarded as one of the best midfielders in Premier League history, also joined after his contract with Chelsea expired. In early July, they paid $31.5 million to Scottish champions Celtic F.C. for Portuguese winger Jota. Their next notable signing was Fabinho, regarded as one of Europe’s best defensive midfielders over the last seven years. Al-Ittihad doled out $50.6 million to sign him from Liverpool. On the deadline, the club signed Italian-Brazilian defender Luiz Felipe from Real Betis for about $23.6 million, as well as two Saudi players for a combined $21.6 million, bringing their overall expenditure on transfers to about $127 million, plus salaries. 

Al-Nassr looked to build around Cristiano Ronaldo entering 23/24. The club first turned to their midfield. Their first signing was Marcelo Brozovic, a key member of Croatia’s golden generation, for $19.5 million from Inter Milan. Second was Ivorian Seko Fofana, who was crucial in helping RC Lens finish second in France’s Ligue 1. Al-Nassr paid Lens $27 million for Fofana. The club then shifted towards finding attacking support for Ronaldo. They signed Alex Telles from Manchester United for $5 million, Sadio Mane from Bayern Munich for $32.5 million, and FC Porto winger Otavio for $65 million. And for the defense, Al-Nassr turned to Aymeric Laporte, paying $30 million to sign him from European champions Manchester City. Total outlay: $175 million plus salaries.

Al-Ahli, having just been promoted from the second division, had a weak squad entering the summer, so they spent big to get up to speed. Firstly, they upgraded their goalkeeper by signing Edouard Mendy for $20 million. The Senegalese goalkeeper had fallen out of favor at Chelsea. The club then revamped their front three by signing Roberto Firmino (free agent striker from Liverpool), Riyad Mahrez (right winger from Manchester City for around $38 million), and Allan Saint-Maximin (left winger from Newcastle for $29.5 million). Further additions included Franck Kessie for $13.5 million from Barcelona, Roger Ibanez from Roma for $32.5 million, Merih Demiral from Atalanta BC for $21.7 million, Saudi star striker Firas Al-Buraikan for $10.5 million from Al-Fateh, and most notably, Spanish youngster Gabri Veiga from Celta Vigo for around $43.4 million. Overall, Al-Ahli spent about $206 million, salaries not included.

You may look at the expenditures above and think “Wow, that’s a lot of investment, each club has probably spent nearly $300 million to sign all these guys.” You are right, these numbers are high. But wait until you see Al-Hilal’s figures, because their transfer window is the perfect example of the PIF’s ambition.

Al-Hilal paid $60 million for Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Ruben Neves, beating speculation from Barcelona. $25 million was spent to sign Kalidou Koulibaly from Chelsea. $43.4 million was doled out to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, who was once linked to Manchester United and Arsenal. $65 million was sent to Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg for Malcom, a former Barcelona player who disappointed during his lone season in Spain. Neymar, a man who dazzled in Barcelona for four years, was signed from Paris Saint-Germain after Al-Hilal forked out $97.6 million. $22.7 million was spent to sign goalkeeper Yassine Bounou from Sevilla. $57 million was spent on Serbian striker Alexsandar Mitrovic. And lastly, $12.5 million was spent on Hassan Tombakti, who formerly played for domestic rivals Al-Shabab. In just transfer fees, the outlay was $382 million. And it could have been almost double that amount had their most wild transfer gone through.

Mbappe

As the summer window began, reports came out that the defending Ligue 1 champions, Paris Saint Germain (PSG), wanted to sell their superstar striker Kylian Mbappe. The Qatari owners had become disgruntled at the rumors linking Mbappe with his supposed dream club Real Madrid. However, the record Spanish and European champions had already spent big on teenage midfielder Jude Bellingham for more than $111 million. Making another $100 million+ bid for Mbappe seemed unrealistic at this point, but Madrid was also considered Mbappe’s only realistic destination. Now, with PSG trying to sell him and no one coming for him, what would happen to Kylian Mbappe?

In mid-July, Al-Hilal put forward a massive offer. First off, the fee offered was $332 million, which would have smashed the world record for any transfer (the current holder is, ironically, Neymar, who joined PSG for $262 million). It was a bid that PSG were ready to accept, but they needed the “OK” from Mbappe for the salary. So, Al-Hilal put forward a $775 million contract. For one year. $1.1 billion. On one player. It seemed perfect. PSG would get a fee, Al-Hilal would secure the exact sort of signing the Saudis were looking for, and Mbappe would have a massive amount of money for one year, then leave for his dream club as a billionaire. All before even turning 26.

Mbappe, who was ostracized from PSG’s preseason tour in Japan (where they played Al-Nassr), would turn down this astounding offer, and by August 13, PSG had confirmed Mbappe was going back to training with the first team again. He has since scored his 150th goal in Ligue 1 for PSG, becoming the first player in club history to reach that milestone.

So Saudi Arabia went after Mbappe and failed. They went after Neymar and succeeded. What about the third man in PSG’s front three from last year? 

Messi

Yes, they did try to go after Messi. In fact, an unnamed Saudi club reportedly offered a 3-year deal worth $1.6 billion in order to sign Messi. It seemed reasonable because of both Saudi ambitions and Messi’s work as an ambassador for the tourism industry in the country. Surely the money and the fit were too good to turn down, right?

Messi turned down the offer. Some definitely were surprised that Messi turned down Saudi Arabia despite the work he did for the country. However, money was the only real pull factor included in the offer to Messi. But, he chose America instead.

Thanks to the work of Argentine Jorge Mas, the great David Beckham, and the executives of Major League Soccer, Messi was convinced to join Inter Miami on a much cheaper contract than Saudi Arabia offered. What was so good about moving to MLS? There are many factors some have pointed to, but it was mainly profit sharing with Apple and Adidas, two major MLS partners, that was thought to be key in Messi’s decision.

Though Messi would have been nice to have in Saudi Arabia, the PIF’s investment has still been successful in bringing in big-name players. You can only wonder where they got the idea from, because the Saudis’ idea is nothing original.

The CSL project: Proof of Unsustainability?

During the mid-2010s, the Chinese Super League (CSL) and its clubs went on major spending sprees, in the hopes that signing big players would help China become a football powerhouse and have Asia capable of winning the World Cup by 2050. Right away you can see very similar mentalities between the governments of Saudi Arabia and China regarding football. Of course, the wages offered were astronomical, and attracted some big names. Stars like Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez, Hulk, Oscar, and Alex Teixeira would snub Europe for the massive wage packets offered by China. However, there was one major difference.

There was no wealth fund to lend anyone money, and the clubs ran independently under their owners, some who would prove to be financially irresponsible. However, the pandemic also played a huge role in the fall of the CSL, as teams were unable to make money off of ticket sales due to Xi Jinping’s strict COVID policies. By 2021, multiple clubs went bankrupt and most of the big names that went to China in the mid-2010s headed west. The names include the aforementioned Anderson Talisca and Yannick Carrasco, both of whom now play in the Saudi League (Carrasco returned to Atletico Madrid on the way).

So it seems as if Saudi Arabia observed China, saw the failures and found a way to mitigate them. But, clubs not funded by the PIF are operating on their own investments, so there is a risk that some clubs may go bankrupt if finances are mishandled. However, their spending is not out of control. Players like the aforementioned Yannick Carrasco and MLS star Lucas Zelarayan have joined non-PIF-funded clubs on relatively nominal transfer fees. As an example of their shrewdness, Al-Ettifaq turned down signing struggling Man United winger Jadon Sancho after United’s demands were deemed too much by Al-Ettifaq’s owners.

 

The Saudi League’s approach to the summer window, on paper, looks very reckless and risky, with money looking as though it has been thrown around like Halloween candy (literal billions accounting for all transfer fees and salaries). However, unlike its Chinese counterparts, the Saudi League seems to be throwing the money around wisely, and only on the players they know will attract attention, (like Ronaldo, Neymar, and others). Should the Saudi clubs manage their finances competently over the next few years like they are right now, MBS’s football revolution will be complete.

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