GENEVA—Cristiano Ronaldo is already in Saudi Arabia. Karim Benzema looks sure to be next. And as the oil-rich kingdom pursues Lionel Messi as well, it is making sure that money continues to flow into the domestic soccer league.
Saudi Arabia’s push to attract the world’s best players entered another phase Monday when the sovereign wealth Public Investment Fund took a majority ownership stake in four of the country’s top clubs, including Ronaldo’s Al Nassr. The move is part of a “privatization project” that encourages public sector organizations to invest in sports, with soccer teams a priority under the initiative backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The PIF already owns Premier League club Newcastle and manages more than $600 billion of the oil-rich kingdom’s assets. Unlike the Premier League and other European teams, Saudi clubs are not bound by UEFA’s rules on spending, meaning there is no limit to the salaries the PIF can offer to lure top players to the Middle East. Aside from Al Nassr, it now owns a 75% share of Al Ittihad, Al Ahli and Al Hilal, the Asian Champions League winner in 2019 and 2021.
“The transfer of the four clubs will unleash various commercial opportunities, including investment, partnership and sponsorships across numerous sports,” said the PIF.
Monday’s announcements seemed to effectively nationalize the top level of domestic soccer as a state project — part of the Vision 2030 national development policy promoted by the crown prince, better known as MBS, who is also prime minister of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s ambition to become a major force in world soccer was made clear when Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in January for a reported salary of $200 million a year, after he fell out of favor at Manchester United.
Monday’s initiatives made it clear that a growing list of top players could soon get lucrative offers to join Ronaldo in the Middle East.
“The Saudi Pro League … will be supported in its ambition to be amongst the top 10 leagues in the world,” the state-owned Saudi Press Agency said in a news release.
Benzema’s move to join his former long-time Real Madrid teammate in the Saudi league is expected to be confirmed this week. He played an emotional farewell game Sunday after 14 years with the 14-time European champion.
Messi played his last game for Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday and is weighing offers from Saudi Arabia and Inter Miami in Major League Soccer. He favors a potential return to Barcelona, Messi’s father said Monday in Barcelona, where he spent 16 years before reluctantly leaving the financially troubled club for PSG in 2021.
The Saudi league has players from “over 40 different countries and has seen attendances increase by nearly 150% in the last year,” the statement from the SPA said. “The privatization and ownership transfer of clubs aims to accelerate progress in a variety of sports across the kingdom further growing participation, providing cutting edge facilities, increasing competition and nurturing future champions.”
Saudi Arabia is also widely expected to bid to host or co-host the men’s World Cup, either in 2030 or 2034, with speculation fueled by the crown prince building strong public ties to FIFA president Gianni Infantino in recent years. Building the profile of domestic soccer would be a logical step toward Saudi soccer’s global ambitions.
Saudi Arabia’s homegrown players are also flourishing.
The national team stunned Messi and Argentina with a 2-1 victory in their opening game at the World Cup in Qatar in November, and the Al-Hilal club won the Asian Champions League title in 2019 and 2021.
Image credits: AP