There is a panicked feeling in the football world that the sky is falling. We are seeing the end of the beautiful games we have come to love and adore. In the space of two years we’ve seen the Saudi Wealth Fund, or PIF, stamp their name on the sport. It began with a majority 80% stake in Newcastle United in 2021. They then acquired the four largest clubs in the Saudi Pro League: Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli before the start of this season. Ownership changes aren’t exactly a rarity. It was what happened next that triggered the warning claxons. The PIF opened their oil-rich pockets and staggering transfer offers ensued.
Karim Benzema to Al-Ittihad for 3 years, $643 million. Benzema will make $4.12m per week.
Neymar to Al-Hilal for 2 years, $300 million. Neymar will make $2.65m per week.
And while you expect to see global superstars taking advantage of the astronomical wages to secure their livelihoods, we also saw the draw of all that cash. Fabinho and Reds captain Jordan Henderson joined the “project.” So why am I not joining the panicked Chicken Little yelling?
WE’VE SEEN THIS BEFORE
In 2016, we saw the rise of the Chinese Super League (CSL). The CSL was backed by the power of private businesses that included major real estate entities, e-commerce, and direct selling operations. In 2018, five of the CSL teams owned by local state-owned enterprises were granted more access to funds and government support. There were now hundreds of millions of dollars available coupled with the blessing of CCP leader Xi Jinping to invest in the sport.
Like the PIF, the CSL owners took their deep wallets on a spending spree of Europe’s top leagues. Hulk, Didier Drogba, Carlos Tevez, Oscar, Paulinho, Jackson Martinez, and others took their talents to China. Ezequiel Lavezzi made a sky-high weekly wage that at the time seemed unmatchable, pulling home around £798,000 a week in the three years he plied his trade for Hebei China Fortune. Former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, was adamant in his concern about the impact of the CSL. “Yes, of course, the Premier League should be worried. Because China looks to have the financial power to move a whole league of Europe to China,” said Wenger. “We are long enough in this job to know that it’s just a consequence of economic power and they have that.”
AND THE SKY FELL ON THEM
While the new financial muscle of the CSL contributed to the inflation of transfer costs, they couldn’t compete with England and other European leagues on a media front. $100m transfer deals, as Wenger prognosticated in that same interview, became the norm. However, the TV deals like the one the Premier League worked out were bigger reasons for increased spending across the board. Then, COVID hit, and the CSL spending spree came to a close. Multiple club owners were bankrupted by the turmoil of global markets. Empty stadiums emptied their pockets.
The PIF is in the ascendancy at the moment. Global dependence on their biggest liquid asset would speak to a longer term of financial stability. It doesn’t 100% guarantee a constant interest though from the Saudi elite. Nor does it address the shift of major countries to alternative energy sources. We would need a crystal ball to see how that will all play out, but again the CSL looked like a financial juggernaut backed by a rampant Chinese GDP and it still imploded.
SUCCESS IS NOT GUARANTEED
Another reason why I’m not overly concerned is how early this is in the supposedly apocalyptic narrative. This is the first year for the four state-controlled teams in the Pro League. There are plenty of things that could happen to change the seemingly astral trajectory of the league. What if the state’s sides struggle? As of writing, Ronaldo and Mane’s Al-Nassr remain pointless through two games. It is still early but we’ll see if similar results are met with patience by the Fund. Big names draw attention to the league for sure, but we don’t know if those names and their draw will stay. Viewership levels increased sevenfold but is that morbid curiosity or an influx of new fans? Many of the players who sojourned to China returned to Europe after banking massive wages. Again, we don’t know how many will make a similar move after visiting the Saudi oasis.
Domestic success also won’t be enough. Manchester City’s 2023 Champions League crown was the first for a state-owned club. PSG and the Sky Blues ruled the roost in France and England respectively, but never on the biggest stage. Wealth doesn’t necessarily equate to success. Look at the wild investment Chelsea has made over the past three transfer windows. A cool billion dollars has provided a twelfth-place finish in the Premier League and turmoil. The Saudi Pro League will draw the eyes of many avid fans of the sport. But I don’t believe they will hold those eyes and dethrone Europe and remove the leagues’ chokehold on the global market.
The attention also hasn’t been as big as I would expect with such high-priced signings. Living in the States I am hearing more about Messi’s success at Inter Miami with his Barcelona mates. He just took home the inaugural Leagues Cup to put in his already overflowing trophy case. It is an American tournament so you may be thinking “Well, yeah. You would hear more about that than anything else because of proximity.” That however speaks to my point that even with the money and the names, the international draw of the Saudi Pro League is an uphill battle. Just adding Messi to a fledgling competition has pushed you out of the news cycle.
In the end, the panic over the Saudi Pro League buying up talent with monster contracts is starting too early. The sky isn’t falling yet. I don’t even think it is cracking. The money is mind-bogglingly astronomical, see Fabinho getting a casual Rolex from a journalist, but it factors outside of its control to gain further prominence. There are also murky questions about financials, dubious human rights records, and the CSL’s recent history that need to be addressed before it became a true “sky is falling” moment.