Is Saudi Arabia the new football mecca?
The number of top international football players joining the Saudi Pro League is growing. Last Tuesday Neymar transferred from Paris St. Germain to Al-Hilal, one of Saudi Arabia’s four, mainly state-owned top clubs — for an annual salary of 200 million euros. And more and more younger players are also signing up with the absolute monarchy’s clubs. Money rules the football world these days, commentators observe.
A new age in international football
The fact that more and more players are succumbing to the temptation of Saudi money could soon become a problem for European football, warns Die Presse:
“Attracted by astronomical salaries, more than 30 well-known professionals have already turned their backs on Europe this year and moved to Saudi Arabia. Clubs like Liverpool, Barcelona or Chelsea are just a note in their CVs. The present for these footballers is Al Ahli, Al Nassr or Ettifaq FC. Recent developments in the transfer market are already shaking the foundations of world football. If Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland, currently the best in their profession, were to leave, Europe would definitely have a problem. At least Mbappé has rebuffed Saudi Arabia’s first attempt.”
Too late now
Expresso sees the exodus of football stars to Riyadh and Jeddah as the natural consequence of a sport dominated by business interests:
“Saudi Arabia, which produces a billion euros worth of oil every day, can afford to spend endless amounts of money on football. It will only stop doing this if it wants to — as long as no entity that guarantees the rules of competition or fair play. ... Do we think it’s good that players trade real competition and the love of their jersey for many (many) millions? Not at all. Do we mind that they do this in a country where human rights are systematically violated? Of course we do. But people have turned football into a business and turned a blind eye to financial fair play, and now it’s too late.”
A way to give fandom meaning
For Zeit Online, interpreting Saudi Arabia’s expansion in international football as being all about image enhancement is oversimplistic:
“It certainly plays a role, but there is also another reason. Interest in Western luxury and entertainment products in the country, including Apple devices as well as Nike shoes and football jerseys, is huge. Why should the Saudis watch from afar and wear FC Bayern Munich jerseys when they can buy their own league that even ends up offering attractive, successful football? Only then does being a fan gain meaning, generating self-confidence and identification.”
Politicians are no better
International politicians are setting a bad example, Le Monde criticises:
“Of course, the ambitious crown prince is also seeking to whitewash an image tarnished by human rights violations and the rising number of executions. ... But it’s not only footballers like party animal Neymar who are cosying up to the kingdom. Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron have also increased their contact with Mohammed bin Salman, who has also just been invited to the UK. Why should we expect athletes to have more moral scruples than politicians?”