The transfer of stars like Karim Benzema to the Saudi Pro League has fed calls to stop its poaching of big-name players. But Saudi control is the natural outcome of the sport’s transformation into a plaything for billionaires.

Karim Benzema during his official reception event at King Abdullah Sports City on June 8, 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Yasser Bakhsh / Getty Images)

A recent wave of football stars is following in Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps. From French striker Karim Benzema to 2018 World Cup winning midfielder N’Golo Kanté, Senegal captain Kalidou Koulibaly, and Portugal international Rúben Neves, they’re all signing for Saudi Arabia’s Pro League.

Former England and Manchester United star Gary Neville has called for the Premier League to stop transferring players to Saudi Arabia to “ensure the integrity of the game isn’t being damaged.” Meanwhile, definitely-not-rattled Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president Aleksander Čeferin has been forced to assert Saudi clubs poaching big-name European players doesn’t threaten European soccer. For many, a blatant sportswashing project luring superstars for eye-watering sums of money constitutes a danger to football itself.

But Saudi Arabia doing its best to buy football outright with overstuffed cases of blood-splattered petrodollars doesn’t threaten the sport — it’s precisely what the modern game demands. An inconceivably rich state buying European teams outright and doling out $200 million annual contracts at home could indeed shift the balance of power in football — kicking the sums of money involved in transfers and contracts further into the stratosphere. Yet it’s also only the latest step in football’s dreary conversion from the people’s game into a speculative object best suited for sportswashing and investment portfolios.

Diversified

States hijacking the world’s most popular sport is neither new nor rare. The phenomenon has recently reached grim heights in last year’s World Cup in Qatar and United Arab Emirates–backed Manchester City lifting this season’s Champions League trophy. But that doesn’t diminish the morbidly impressive extent of Saudi Arabia’s recent sportswashing onslaught, which is by no means limited to football.

The Private Investment Fund (PIF) is Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Worth roughly $650 billion, it’s one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds in the world. Designed to diversify Saudi state investments to break a reliance on oil revenues, PIF’s international investments include such friendly, scrappy small businesses as Uber, Blackstone and Boeing. Domestically, PIF underwrites projects like NEOM, the bleak, futuristic city that will absolutely be built as planned and is in no way a vile PR stunt.

PIF’s notoriously opaque nature means that some of its most transparent investments have been in football. In 2021, PIF purchased an 80 percent stake in Premier League club Newcastle United. Though PIF is chaired by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Premier League was apparently assured the Saudi state “wouldn’t control the club” and waved the deal through. When a despot directly tied to the murder of a journalist and countless human rights abuses proved a somewhat controversial owner, league administrators responded by introducing regulation that would bar human rights abusers from purchasing clubs. Sure, this passed two years after the Newcastle purchase and has yet to be enforced — but that’s still fairly good, as far as football regulations go.

Claiming a foothold in the world’s most-watched league was a pivotal opening salvo in the Saudi pursuit of sporting soft power. Saudi Arabia has bolstered these efforts with dizzying investment in building up its own league. This began with making Cristiano Ronaldo the best-paid footballer in the world earlier this year when he signed for Al Nassr, a club backed by a PIF subsidiary. In early June, PIF took over the country’s four biggest clubs outright (including Al Nassr) with the intention of further boosting the Saudi Pro League.

In the same week, Benzema’s free transfer from Real Madrid to Al-Ittihad was confirmed. He’ll reportedly make roughly $100 million a year, with bonuses for supporting a potential Saudi bid to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup. These sums are astronomical. PIF will pay more for a couple seasons of Benzema and Ronaldo than it did to own Newcastle. Since then, they have been joined by N’Golo Kanté, Rúben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, and Édouard Mendy.

These outsized contracts will undoubtedly prove hefty enough to lure further stars to the Gulf. A mass exodus of excellent, if aging, players to Saudi Arabia represents a new wrinkle in football, but it is in no way a fundamental change. Star players and entire clubs have long been twinkling baubles for the rich and powerful, and Saudi Arabia just happens to be one of the richest and most powerful forces in the world at the moment.

As Modern as It Gets

If Saudi Arabia’s forays into football sound depressingly familiar, it’s because we’ve heard this macabre tune before. Some of the biggest clubs in European football are sportswashing vehicles. Manchester City, owned by United Arab Emirates vice president Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, is essentially a powder-blue Emirati PR firm that happens to be fantastic at football. The only enjoyable aspect of the culmination of their plodding, fifteen-year march to a Champions League title was probably Jack Grealish’s resulting bender.

Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) are a similar project with Qatari backing. Unsurprisingly, the financial might of an entire petrostate makes signing players like Neymar and Kylian Mbappé slightly easier, even if they have had less fortune actually winning European trophies. The tradition and built-in fanbases of football clubs make them ideal for deflecting and absorbing criticism and shifting perceptions of states.

Though sovereign wealth funds ostensibly purchase football clubs to diversify their investment portfolios, the egregious arms race to outspend other sides and buy trophies means making money with a football club is a challenging prospect. Which makes the fact that the other most common ownership model at big clubs tends to be American billionaires slightly curious.

“Lucky” fans get a faceless assembly of VC suits that hires the right bean counters to overperform, before skipping out with a profit (if they got in early enough for profit to be possible). Less fortunate ones end up with doofuses like Chelsea’s Todd Boehly, who openly misunderstands the sport he spent billions buying into and whose idiotic tinkering ensured his shiny new club would do significantly worse despite spending an unprecedented $600 million on signings in one season.

While its arguable that none of these ownership options are quite as bad as PIF, none of them are particularly good, either. But American billionaires hoping to wring out all they can from beloved clubs and open sportswashing vehicles are today’s two most potent footballing forces. No surprise then, that Leo Messi’s dramatic choice on where to play next after a frosty exit from PSG was between Saudi Arabia and Miami.

A Long Time Coming

Today’s financialized, morally desolate football landscape is likely worse than many could have imagined even just a decade ago, but it still reflects long-standing trends. The Premier League itself was founded by top English clubs looking to break away from lower leagues in order to increase broadcasting revenue in the early ’90s. The pursuit of TV money also reshaped the Champions League in the same period.

And while it has been a very long time since most top-flight European clubs were community owned, the amount of money that’s been sloshed into the game in the last decades — particularly via ever-ballooning broadcasting deals — has redefined just who is capable of getting involved in football. West London’s favorite oligarch, Roman Abramovich, purchasing Chelsea in 2003 was a further step toward the current predicament. While American billionaires like Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke or the Glazer family at Manchester United invested in Premier League teams at around the same time, they were hoping to leverage what they saw as undervalued assets to pad their wealth.

Abramovich, on the other hand, was more interested in safe-housing his money outside of Russia and building a network of influence in Britain. Like today’s owners at Newcastle, Manchester City, or PSG, profitability (especially in the short term) simply wasn’t a factor. The era of attempting to compete with clubs where money is literally not a factor has begun, and it looks like it won’t end any time soon.

PIF’s foray into English football isn’t the only event echoing the sad, stupid elements of football’s past. For this domestic spending has an unimpressive precedent. In the 2010s, China invested wildly in its domestic league (in addition to Chinese investors snapping up some European sides), splashing the cash on big names in the hope of helping China develop into a global contender at the world’s game. Now, the stars are gone and that dream seems to be imploding. But the usual rules of football accounting reassure us that if Saudi Arabia (or indeed the United States) just spends even more on star players, it will definitely work out better.

Product Placement

Star footballers are some of the most popular athletes on the planet. They undoubtedly deserve to be well-compensated for their hard work — and money is much better off in their pockets than in those of owners, sponsors, or corrupt institutions like FIFA or UEFA. But once the sums of money involved in the game become so earth-shatteringly high, it’s impossible to prioritize the fans that make the players stars.

Every lurching step football has taken toward its current state has been a brutal loss for supporters. Not just because explosive costs have pushed up ticket prices or insatiable addictions to broadcast revenue means matches kick off at inconvenient times for match-going fans. More importantly, every step that sees money take precedence over everything else and commodifies the sport erodes anything resembling democratic control, transparency, and supporter influence.

The evolution of ownership and investment in football has seen clubs transition from community entities to global assets — making fans nothing more than consumers. And even those who support teams from afar have been shortchanged by all of this: broadcast bidding wars means you need a handful of increasingly expensive streaming services just to watch your squad play — whether the club you support is owned by a foreign sovereign state or a friendly, local billionaire.

There have been some flickers of hope. In Germany, a combination of the structural 50+1 ownership model that dictates members — in this case, fans — own a controlling majority of their clubs (outside of some high-profile exemptions, like RB Leipzig, so named after Red Bull) and a highly politicized fan scene demonstrate things can be different. Due to widespread outcry led by fans, the Bundesliga recently decided against selling off a large chunk of its broadcasting rights to private equity vultures, while years of protest from hardcore Bayern fans pressured the club into ending its sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways. But these victories largely maintain an already-broken status quo, especially when leagues with more democratic structures and critical supporters have to compete with ones that show few such qualms.

Without a complete reimagining of football, regulation that bars dictators from snapping up clubs and stars, and widespread democratization of the sport on a global scale, we will be forced to endure the worst elements of football escalating at the hands of PIF and the Saudi state — which will be the worst thing to ever happen to the game, until another country with even more money (and fewer scruples) comes along and does exactly the same thing.

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