Saudis Play the Long Game


Newcastle United reenter the UEFA Champions League for the first time in 20 years tomorrow, when they face Milan at San Siro in their Group F opener.

Saudis Play the Long Game.

There is huge expectation on Tyneside after such a long gap and such a large fan base. Eddie Howe, the much-respected manager, has a big task on his shoulders satisfying England's most passionate fans and wealthiest owners, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (P.I.F.).

The Magpies are only rated at 25/1 to win the competition, with about ten clubs ahead of them in the betting stakes. As the club sits 11th in the Premier League after five matches, nobody beyond the Geordie hordes believes the trophy will be in the trophy cabinet at St James Park next June.

Yet backed by an almighty kitty, continental dominance can only be a matter of time for the North-Eastern English team. Within a decade perhaps, the black and white stripes could well be sitting at the top of the tree. The only thing that could conceivably stop them is if UEFA tighten their Financial Fair Play rules.

Newcastle are owned 10% by the Reuben brothers, Indian-born businessmen, 10% by Amanda Staveley, a British money trader and 80% by the Saudi P.I.F., which has a war chest of €520 billion. Reigning champions Manchester City by comparison, has in 81% owner Sheikh Mansour of the U.A.E., a wealth fund of only €15.7 billion to draw upon.

The Magpies are one branch of the Saudis' large-scale entry into the international cultural arena, a dramatic arrival from Formula One to LIV golf, boxing, cricket and other sports with no discernible heritage in the gulf state.

Football, the world's highest-profile pastime, is nevertheless the jewel in the crown of the P.I.F. strategy, as part of the nation's Vision 2030, which is officially dedicated to diversifying the oil-dependent Saudi economy, no doubt with an eye on the global green agenda banning fossil fuels in the future. 

Critics however, deride the P.I.F. work as sportswashing, brushing the Saudi state's human rights abuses under a carpet of petrodollars. Last week, international organisation Human Rights Watch gave a presentation to the US Senate on this very topic.

Saudi influence in soccer is wider than one might think. The recent Women's World Cup, although now infamous due to the Luis Rubiales scandal, reminded us that Spain's Supercopa has been played three out of the last four years in Riyadh, partly thanks to the Spanish federation chief, and that FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had tried to make Visit Saudi a Women's World Cup sponsor, before a human rights-led backlash axed the plan.

The Saudi Pro League has been the football story of the summer, splashing the cash like no league before with a reported $200 million salary for Cristiano Ronaldo the highlight of their trolley dash. 

In June, the P.I.F. announced it was taking a 75% stake in four of its clubs - Al-Nassr (who boast Ronaldo, Sadio Mane and Aymeric Laporte), Al-Ittihad (Karim Benzema, Ngolo Kante and Fabinho), Al-Ahli (Roberto Firmino, Edouard Mendy and Allan Saint-Maximin) and Al-Hilal (Neymar, Ruben Neves and Aleksandar Mitrovic).

Despite apparently bidding for every top player on the market this summer, with the carrot of a bigger salary, some big-name stars - Lionel Messi, Mohamed Salah and Harry Kane, said no and stayed in Europe or in Messi's case moved to the MLS. Unable to offer Champions League football, the Saudi league has a serious handicap. It may have the money, but it has a long way to go to challenge Europe's big five.

Unless FIFA steps in, which is unlikely, the Pro League will keep chipping away at Europe and South America, the game's traditional powerhouses.

Its stated long-term aim is to reside as one of the world's top ten football leagues. Wikipedia rates it 12th in revenue as of September 2023. If the spending spree, which reached €813 million this summer, continues, reaching the top ten of the world's leagues will not be too far away.

Making the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings for the national team is a much tougher ask however. 

Currently, the Green Falcons are only 54th in the world and have managed to fall five places since beating Argentina at the 2022 World Cup. The football association last month hired Roberto Mancini and his Azzurri coaching staff, including former stars Alberico Evani and Attilio Lombardi, to turn things around.

Mancini unveiled as Saudi Arabia manager.
Roberto Mancini is the new Saudi Arabia coach

Qualifying for the 2026 tournament is a must but for the House of Saud, the biggest football prize of them all however remains hosting the World Cup itself, a dream given extra impetus as they looked on green with envy last winter as Qatar pulled it off despite the naysayers.

Saudi Arabia had been involved in a three-nation plan to bid for the 2030 tournament alongside odd bedfellows Egypt and Greece, but the discussions did not materialise into an official declaration by FIFA's deadline. Spain, Portugal and Morocco have a much stronger bid and are favourites for 2030, ahead of CONMEBOL's Uruguay-Argentina-Chile-Paraguay candidature.

However, the Saudis have now opted to aim for the 2034 World Cup as sole hosts, with a blockbuster bid including a new $500 billion city called Neom, featuring The Line, a 170 km x 200m x 500m building which looks straight out of a sci-fi film.

The Saudis have also begun a charm offensive, sounding out overseas associations in various continents about their intention of going for 2034 alone.

So their soccer strategy proceeds along four fronts - World Cup hosting, the national team, the domestic Pro League and Newcastle United.

The Magpies will not win this year's Champions League, but will sooner or later. The much bigger Saudi football project is still only getting going.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

Post a Comment

Previous Post Next Post