Saudi Arabia’s soccer landscape is experiencing a remarkable transformation as
the nation embarks on a mission to establish itself as a global sporting hub. The
recent influx of high-profile soccer signings has drawn comparisons to China’s
messy entrance into the market.
However, Saudi Arabia is taking a more strategic approach, aiming to diversify its economy, project a modern image, and capitalize on the popularity of soccer to attract tourism and global attention. As the Saudi Pro League welcomes renowned players, the nation’s soccer revolution holds both promise and challenges.
Saudi Arabia’s Vision
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia
aims to reduce reliance on oil by targeting multiple sources of money-making markets. Building a strong soccer league is a key component of this strategy. As a result, it enhances global standing, attracts investment, and showcases the nation as a modern and innovative destination.
The Public Investment Fund (PIF), with significant financial resources, has played a pivotal role in backing Saudi Arabia’s soccer ambitions. The country aspires to elevate its soccer league into the global top 10 in terms of revenue generation by 2030.
Learning from China’s experience
China’s ill-fated spending spree in soccer serves as an essential lesson for
Saudi Arabia. China’s initial approach to buying star players resulted in bankruptcies, corruption scandals, and a lack of substantial improvement in soccer standards. To address these issues, the Chinese government intervened with transfer taxes, salary caps, and more. As a result, a lot of clubs ended up folding from all ends of the Chinese soccer pyramid.
Economic slowdown, indebted club owners, and the impact of the pandemic further hindered China’s soccer ambitions. Saudi Arabia undoubtedly wants to learn from these mistakes and chart a different path toward sustainable growth.
The Saudi Pro League has certainly witnessed an impressive influx of talent, with several notable players joining Saudi clubs. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of soccer’s all-time greats, signed with Al-Nassr in December, followed by the arrival of Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kanté at Al-Ittihad.
Al-Hilal, the most successful team in Saudi Arabia and Asia, secured the services of Rúben Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly. Édouard Mendy, Chelsea’s star keeper who couldn’t bounce back from a patch of poor form, joined Al-Ahli. Above all, these high-profile signings have generated considerable excitement and international attention.
Strengths and Challenges
Compared to China, Saudi Arabia possesses certain advantages that bode well
for its soccer revolution. The nation already boasts a strong soccer presence in
terms of continental success, international exposure, and the quality of foreign
The financial backing from the PIF, which oversees major soccer clubs and other sports investments, provides the necessary resources to attract top talent and invest in infrastructure and development. However, challenges remain. Past instances of financial mismanagement, debt, and unpaid salaries within Saudi Arabian clubs show the need for effective governance and financial stability in the league.
The Cultural Factor
Religion and culture play a role in Saudi Arabia’s soccer aspirations in addition to financial considerations. Players such as Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, and others have expressed their attraction to the country due to its status as a Muslim nation and the significance of religious sites like Mecca.
Although faith may play a secondary role in player recruitment, it aligns with the nation’s cultural ties and resonates with local and regional audiences. Saudi Arabia’s commitment to providing a unique environment, rooted in Islamic values and traditions, showcases its dedication to creating a distinctive soccer experience. By comparison, major leagues like the French Ligue 1 have banned players from breaking fasts during Ramadan, showing a lack of tolerance and ignorance towards Muslim players.
As shown above, Saudi Arabia’s soccer revolution represents a promising path forward for the nation. Drawing lessons from China’s pitfalls, Saudi Arabia is taking a more measured and strategic approach to building a sustainable soccer ecosystem. The involvement of the PIF, high-profile player acquisitions, and also a focus on effective governance contribute to its potential success.
However, challenges in managing finances, ensuring competitive balance, and maintaining long-term sustainability must be addressed. Despite public criticism from fans and pundits alike, Saudi Arabia is keeping up its expensive signings. As Saudi Arabia’s soccer league gains momentum, the world eagerly watches to see if it can establish itself as a major player on the global soccer stage, propelled by its vision for economic diversification and sporting excellence.
PHOTO: IMAGO / ABACAPRESS
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