Paradise for Ronaldo and Messi. Saudi Pro League is Chinese Championship v. 2.0
In recent months, the Saudi Arabian Football Championship (Saudi Pro League) has been actively and extensively written in all serious sports publications around the world. It all started, of course, with the sensational move to the Arabian Peninsula of the star Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed a contract with Al-Nasr. But now, it seems, the Saudis are absolutely not going to dwell solely on the ex-leader of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus. The legend of Barcelona Sergio Busquets, the record holder of the French national team in the number of matches played Hugo Lloris, as well as the long-term rival of Ronaldo for the right to win one or another individual top trophy, Lionel Messi, who became the world champion with the Argentina national team in 2022 in 2022 tournament in Qatar.
The amounts that flicker in the media regarding the potential move of Messi to Saudi Arabia can only be called mind-blowing. Al-Hilal is offering Lionel a contract worth 400 million euros a year, twice what Ronaldo receives in Al Nasr…
It is absolutely clear that Saudi Arabia is now looking to make a big impression on the entire football world, but we have seen something like this before. In 2016, clubs from the Chinese Super League began active and even aggressive work on the transfer market. Then the representatives of the Celestial Empire, offering a lot of money, were able to get a number of star players from Europe into their championship. The Chinese, one gets the impression, had a special scent for South Americans, because Oscar, Paulinho, Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Carlos Tevez and Jackson Martinez received incredible conditions on personal contracts, which they could not refuse by definition.
However, the Chinese then managed to attract Europeans to their Super League, the most famous of which was the Belgian Marouane Fellaini, the ex-midfielder of Everton and Manchester United, who continues his career in the Celestial Empire to this day. In addition, many well-known European coaches agreed to go to China to develop football – in particular, Fabio Capello, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Rafael Benitez, Fabio Cannavaro.
However, a few years ago, an ambitious and seemingly promising Chinese football project collapsed …
The Chinese Football Association hoped that by attracting stars to local football clubs, it would be possible not only to raise the level of the championship, but also to strengthen the national team in the future. A number of foreigners were naturalized, and some even played several matches for the first team of the Middle Kingdom. But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, sponsorship revenues began to plummet, and China’s football authorities were forced to disguise an emerging investment crisis as a campaign to cut costs.
When the bubble finally burst, the star legionnaires began to leave the Super League, and the affairs of the champion Jiangsu Suning turned out to be so deplorable that the club was disbanded immediately after winning the historical title and de facto ceased to exist.
Therefore, Chinese history proves that big money does not always create a solid foundation for successful football, but the situation in Saudi Arabia is different from what we previously saw in China. The Saudis seem to be aiming to integrate more systematically into professional world sport, and even before the aggressive actions in the football transfer market, they showed their ambitions in other “disciplines”.
So, in 2021, for the first time in history, the Formula 1 Grand Prix stage was held in Saudi Arabia, and several top boxing fights were also organized in the country. In particular, we are talking about the fights of Anthony Joshua vs. Andy Ruiz Jr., Anthony Joshua vs. Oleksandr Usyk, Tommy Fury vs. Jake Paul. These steps made it clear that the Saudi authorities are interested in lobbying their interests not only through football, but also through other popular sports in the world.
As for football itself, the Saudis made the first significant step here a year before being invited to the Pro League by Cristiano Ronaldo. In October 2021, the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Fund bought Mike Ashley a 100% stake in English Premier League club Newcastle for £300m. A year and a half later, the Magpies are very close to returning to the Champions League, at the group stage of which they were last announced in the 2002/03 season, being in the same quartet with Barcelona, Inter and Bayer.
It is obvious that if Newcastle enters the Champions League, the Saudi owners will increase investment in this project, which in the future may overshadow everything Josep Guardiola has been building in Manchester City for many years. And the fact that money is capable of much, especially when used to achieve strategic goals, was proved at the end of last year by the Saudi neighbors from Qatar, who literally “bought” the right to host the World Cup from FIFA.
Instagram. Lionel Messi with family in Saudi Arabia
It is also interesting that with the general dynamics of increasing costs for their national championships and teams, it is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East that is most striving to ensure that its Pro League is considered one of the most prestigious tournaments in the world. Now this may seem like an invention of the author, but with constant investment and competent management, top football players will continue to appear in the Saudi Arabian championship in the future.
Why is it so? It is enough to evaluate the example of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese played for Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United before moving to Saudi Arabia, top European clubs that allowed the Portuguese to promote his brand and maintain an obsession with his own heritage. It would seem that money will not be able to change the situation, but VERY big money forced Cristiano to go against his principles. Ronaldo signed a contract with Al-Nasr, under which his salary is 3.8 million euros per week. And if the Saudis can soon call on the second greatest football player of our time in the person of Lionel Messi, then in the future, there is no doubt, they are able to do almost anything they want.
Agree that the invitation of Ronaldo and Messi is very different from the purchase of Oscar or Alex Teixeira, which turned out to be a kind of transfer ceiling for the clubs of the Chinese Super League during its heyday.
Of course, skeptics will object – they say, Saudi clubs are only engaged in the fact that they are luring even stars of the first magnitude, but those who are already at the final stage of their career path in professional football. And Ronaldo, and Messi, and Busquets, and Lloris, of course, will retire in 3-5 years, leaving only a symbolic mark on the history of the development of football in Saudi Arabia. However, a key marker for the Pro League to become an ambitious player in the transfer market will be when clubs there are able to sign top players at their peak. And when that happens, the Saudi Arabian Championship will be a worthy competitor for the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga…
But what is already beyond doubt is that the Saudi Pro League has become a kind of upgrade of the ambitious Asian predecessor – a kind of Chinese Super League version 2.0. However, here, in contrast to the Celestial Empire, a situation with a sharp outflow of investments is extremely unlikely. In China, it happened largely due to the fact that football was given to big business “as a burden”, and in Saudi Arabia, billions of dollars of investment in professional sports look like an element of public policy and the implementation of strategic plans.
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