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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

Ronaldo, Benzema, and Kanté? - Saudi Arabia's Football Gold Rush

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

On October 8th, 2021, Newcastle United fans were sent into raptures, when 14 years of tumultuous ownership by Frasers Group founder Mike Ashley ended. The $415m takeover of Newcastle United saw Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) take a controlling 80-per-cent stake, in what would be the third most expensive takeover of a club in history, behind Manchester United for $990m in 2005, and AC Milan for $870m in 2018. The PIF immediately asserted control over the club, placing British business executive Amanda Staveley and governor of the PIF Yasir Al-Rumayyan as club directors. For the first time in 159 years, with the exception of the purchase of Manchester City by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, the Persian Gulf would open shop in the Premier League.

Since the landmark purchase of Newcastle United in 2021, Saudi Arabia’s presence has become more and more prevalent. This past December, just after captain Lionel Messi put a third World Cup star on Argentina’s crown, football legend Cristiano Ronaldo shocked the world when he signed for Al-Nassr FC, a club based in Riyadh. Football fans alike were stunned when it was revealed that Ronaldo would receive the most lucrative contract in sports history, which sees him raking in more than $75m base salary a season, along with an extra $125m in add-ons for two years.

As the 2022/23 season ended, football fans could not escape the neverending headlines of players who were offered egregiously lucrative contracts. Numerous aging footballers seem to be cashing in at the right time, such as 32-year-old former World Cup and Champions League winner N’golo Kanté who is set for a two-year $100m a season contract with Saudi Champions Al-Ittihad, and 2022 Balon D’or winner Karim Benzema, who will join fellow Frenchman Kanté at Al-Ittihad for $200m a season. The Gulf money continues to attract many other European stars who are out of contract this summer, such as Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha, Paris Saint-Germain’s Sergio Ramos, Liverpool’s Roberto Firminio, and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets.

Along with the PIF’s acquisition of a 75% stake in the four marquee clubs of Saudi Arabia (Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal, and Al-Alhi), these landmark moves to bolster the Arab Kingdom’s investment in the game are part of a greater long-term vision of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to turn the Saudi Pro League into a top-ten league worldwide while tripling its value, all in the short space of a decade. Many also speculate that this sudden investment in sport, along with the PIF’s LIV Golf’s effective purchase of the PGA Tour, is part of a cunning plan to “sportwash” their reputations, and diversify their economy away from oil and gas. For a family worth $1.4t, completing this objective seems like an excellent multi-billion-dollar hobby.

While many fans lament this sudden influence that the Arabian Peninsula has over football, Saudi Arabia’s endless pot of $700b sovereign dollars will continue to have influence over the game. With the supposed bid of $6b by Qatari Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani to buy Manchester United from the Glazer family, the recent landmark Champions League win by the Abu Dhabi royal family’s Manchester City, hosting of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and proposed 2030 World Cup in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Greece and Egypt, European football slowly turns into an arena where Gulf monarchies compete to wield the greatest power and financial might.

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