Transfer spending of more than 600 million euros, top salaries of 50 to 200 million: The major investments of the Saudi Arabian Pro League are the dominant topic of this football summer and even overshadow the financial strength of the English Premier League.
On Tuesday evening, the Brazilian superstar Neymar (31) moved from Paris Saint-Germain to Al-Hilal in the capital Riyadh, which proves: It’s not just the 35-plus generation who are about to retire to Saudi Arabia to earn money changes. There are also big names and players in their prime who could just as easily have gone to FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich.
Important for understanding is: This investment is not primarily about football. But about the strategic goals of one of the richest and most repressive countries in the world.
Which stars have moved to Saudi Arabia?
When the five-time world footballer Cristiano Ronaldo switched from Manchester United to Al-Nassr FC in January for an annual salary of around 200 million euros, it was still often smiled at. Motto: A mercenary in expensively paid early retirement – nothing more. But in addition to Ronaldo, Neymar and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema, Saudi clubs have bought other big names away from the old European football nobility in recent weeks.
Sadio Mané (Bayern Munich) and Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan) followed Ronaldo to Al-Nassr. France’s 2018 world champion N’Golo Kanté (Chelsea) and Brazilian Fabinho (Liverpool) went to Al-Ittihad like Benzema.
Particularly noteworthy: The Ivorian Franck Kessié (26/FC Barcelona), the Sergej Milinkovic-Savic (28/Lazio Rome) or the Portuguese Ruben Neves (26/Wolverhampton Wanderers) would have been interesting for almost every top European club thanks to their age and quality . But they also signed in Saudi Arabia.
Where do the Saudi clubs get the money from?
It’s not the entire Saudi league buying star after star. There are mainly the four top clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr (both from Riyadh), Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad (both from Jeddah). All four were acquired this year, 75 percent each, by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund (PIF), which had already taken control of English Champions League contenders Newcastle United two years ago.
The sovereign wealth fund is headed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who effectively controls the country. According to the PIF, the assets are currently around 700 billion dollars.
Why is Saudi Arabia investing so much money in sport?
As early as 2016, bin Salman presented a state plan entitled “Saudi Vision 2030”. His goals are: diversification of the economy, less dependence on oil, opening up the country to tourists and attractive offers for the local population.
Entertainment is “a new growth industry in the kingdom,” wrote the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” on Wednesday. Around 60 percent of the Saudi Arabian population is under the age of 30. The crown prince also has them in mind when he invests heavily in sport.
The football stars are already in the country, the football World Cup is to follow in 2034 or 2038. The Saudis have long since entered the golf, Formula 1 and tennis business. A reproach is therefore also: The strictly conservative governed kingdom operates “sportswashing” to distract from its violations of human rights.
What reactions does that trigger?
Saudi Arabia is even more repressive and socially backward than the highly controversial World Cup host Qatar already is. Homosexuality and alcohol consumption are strictly forbidden and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are severely restricted. According to Turkish authorities, journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The criticism in Brazil of the Neymar change was correspondingly massive. §Going to Al-Hilal will be a permanent mark in Neymar’s career,” wrote the sports portal Globo on Tuesday.
The reactions in European football range between astonishment and horror. “Saudi Arabia throws around so much money that it almost makes you dizzy,” said Bayer Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro. “It’s partly insane not to understand rationally. The Saudis are trying to polish their image through football and other sports.”
With all the weakening of the top European leagues, they suddenly have a very welcome market. PSG or Bayern Munich wanted to get rid of strikers like Neymar and Mané anyway. But without the Saudi transfer offensive, there would hardly have been a club that would continue to pay their high salaries. Chelsea FC sold three players to Saudi Arabia and was able to better finance its own spending spree.
Which stars can follow?
On Wednesday alone, the “Bild” newspaper and the BBC reported on the interest of Saudi clubs in the Bundesliga professional Aissa Laidouni (Union Berlin) and the Spanish international Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City). The next big transfer target in the Pro League is Egyptian striker Mo Salah from Liverpool FC.