Saudi Arabia: the new El Dorado of World Footbal
Saudi Arabia has been sparking widespread conversation in the world of sports, leaving a strong mark on the international football scene. Seeing sports as a means to change its image in the West, the Saudi government has invested heavily in football.
The Middle Eastern country has always been a regional football force, with titles in the Asian continent and World Cup appearances. However, it now has plans to become a global force as soon as possible by transforming its ambition into a top football league.
Saudi Arabia's football objectives are clear, from hosting a World Cup, to boosting the country's league and competing with the major international leagues. The "Vision 2030," a major economic plan announced by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to reduce the country's dependence on oil by diversifying the economy and developing public sectors. This plan may explain the notable strengthening of the Saudi league.
With a significantly high financial capacity, Saudi Arabia has decided to invest in football. After the acquisition of Newcastle in 2021, the Public Investment Fund bought the country's four top clubs – Al Nassr, Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, and Al Ahly – and spared no expense.
The increasing attention of many athletes towards Saudi Arabia can be justified in one word: investment. With promises of million-dollar contracts and salaries, the top football centres in Europe have struggled to compete in this regard, which impacts the major European football leagues. However, a closer look at the Saudi country reveals a great dedication from the population, who genuinely love football, filling stadiums during championship games and showing passion for the sport.
The success in selling player shirts and even broadcasting rights are some of the off-pitch victories of the Saudi league. All of this also contributes to the increase in tourism in the country. Outside the pitch, Messi has become a tourism ambassador, being paid a hefty sum to promote the country through campaigns.
UEFA sees this investment as "having the potential to materially threaten the integrity of European club competitions," as the Saudi movement doesn't only have consequences on the budgets of Saudi clubs and the athletes they hire, but also impacts European football as a whole.
The arrival of top players in the Pro League is narrowing the gap with European football. However, we are witnessing the test of Saudi Arabia's seriousness, and if talent keeps following money, the gap will decrease sooner than expected.
Cristiano Ronaldo, in this case, has once again acted as a true influencer. If the idea of Ronaldo playing in Saudi Arabia had arisen a year ago, it would never have been taken seriously. However, in football, change can happen quickly. It's hard to imagine how a football star can integrate into a completely new team, but so far, the greatest achievement of the Saudi league was the signing of the Portuguese international for Al Nassr in late December. The arrival of the player, considered by many as the best in the world, brought great credibility to the Saudi Super League.
Since the Portuguese moved to the Middle East, it has marked a shift in the country's football paradigm and opened the doors for the arrival of highly reputed players, some in the late stages of their careers, but others not so much, like Karim Benzema, N'Golo Kante, Ever Banega, Rúben Neves, and Ryad Boudebouz. In a matter of months, many renowned players have been linked to a move to Saudi Arabia at a time when the government aims to continue building a strong and competitive championship.
If Saudi Arabia can continue to attract some of the biggest football stars, this league could become the undisputed centre of the football world, with a significant impact on the football powerhouses as we know them.
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