For the first time in the history of world football, a non-European league competition is among the biggest spenders on transfers. It is the Saudi Pro-League, which in addition to the services of Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, the undisputed star of Al-Nassr, has acquired the services of France's Karim Benzema and N'Golo Kanté, both signed from Al-Ittihad, and Brazil's Neymar da Silva, star of Al-Hilal, who head a long list of stars and satellites destined to make their respective teams shine on the international stage. He has also recruited the services of a high-profile English coach, Steven Gerrard, for Damman's historic Al-Ettifaq, the first Saudi club to win the Arab Champions League in 1984 and the Gulf Champions Cup.
The figures are grandiose and dizzying: 200 million per season for Cristiano; a contract of 588 million for Benzema for three years, which will surely be unforgettable for him, and so on up to nearly 1,000 million to make the Saudi championship, if not the most attractive in the world, then the only one capable of bending the strongest wills. This year, only the Argentinian idol Leo Messi has resisted them, rejecting the 360 million offered to him by Al-Ittihad of Jeddah, preferring instead to breathe the American air and the investment potential of Miami.
This policy is not a strictly sporting matter. It is part of a political strategy designed by Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), known as Vision 2030, which is essentially aimed at providing the desert kingdom with a robust soft power, as well as giving room for all the dreams that football can provide for a population two-thirds of which is under 35 years of age.
Riyadh, which has taken good note of the impact in terms of awareness and image of the World Cup in Qatar, aspires to host the same event in 2034 but, unlike its neighbouring emirate, with the sport of football already well-established and established both domestically and internationally. Arabia already has an extensive infrastructure of stadiums, to which, by the way, women are not barred from entering.
Aware that in order to reap good and abundant fruits, it is necessary to invest first, MBS encourages gigantic investments, which include not only this list of signings but also other collateral aspects such as the holding of other national competitions on Saudi soil, such as the Spanish Super Cup, or the purchase of clubs, as in the case of Newcastle in England.
Despite being the world's most popular and popular sport, football is not the only sport in which MBS has indulged. The Saudi Arabian F1 Grand Prix is already fully integrated into the circuit, where Dutchman Max Verstappen and his Red Bull-coloured car are undisputed kings.
Arabia also broke the American PGA's monopoly over another great elite sport, golf, just three years ago by creating the LIV Golf Tour, to which many of the great figures such as the Americans Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Cameron Smith and Bubba Watson, or the Spaniards Sergio García and Pablo Larrazábal, emigrated. In 2022, it so happened that on the same date that Jon Rahm pocketed 250,000 euros for winning the Spanish Open, an almost unknown player from Madrid, Eugenio López Chacarra, pocketed 4.88 million euros for winning the Saudi Tour event in Bangkok. This year, the once all-powerful PGA, which had planned to overthrow the LIV, has had to sit down and negotiate with the LIV and agree on a new organisation that integrates both circuits, with many details still to be decided.
In this global strategy of MBS there is also another horizon: that of diversifying sources of income as much as possible, aware that oil will run out one day, while at the same time Arabia is not renouncing either its leadership of the Arab world or its role as a key player in international geopolitics. And in this puzzle, in addition to military capabilities, it is of the utmost importance to equip itself with the soft power that culture and sport, which are increasingly powerful and global, provide.