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How Saudi Arabia decided to change its football

The arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are only the beginning of the Sheikhs' project

How Saudi Arabia decided to change its football The arrivals of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema are only the beginning of the Sheikhs' project

In the last few hours, it has been quickly confirmed that both Karim Benzema and N'golo Kanté will soon be wearing the jersey of Al Ittihad for USD 200 million and USD 100 million per season respectively. They are not the first, nor will they be the last footballers to accept the pharaonic contracts that the Saudi Pro League can guarantee this summer, which are not marketable by European standards. And while it is certainly nothing new for great players to find their last lucrative contracts outside Europe at the end of their careers, the Saudi Pro League project goes beyond a golden retirement. In fact, the Saudi Pro League recently passed a measure that will forever change the balance of its premier league, one of the most historic and oldest on the Arabian Peninsula.

Namely, the four main teams of the SPL have been bought by the state-owned Public Investment Fund (PIF), which belongs to the Royal Prince Mohammed bin Salman. These are Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad and Al Ahli, which as of now are the direct property of the Arab crown and have money that the others cannot match. The aim is therefore to create a two- or perhaps three-tier league in which the four strongest teams distribute their players to ensure competition at the top. On the other hand, the SPL is already a rather unbalanced league, where some teams play in stadiums with over 60000 spectators and others are relegated to dilapidated facilities and where the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo still seems like a mirage in the desert.

The PIF fund, which also controls Disney, Uber, Boeing, the golf league LIV and of course Newcastle United, among others, will hold 75 per cent of the shares in these four clubs, while the remaining 25 per cent will be controlled by a non-profit organisation. According to the Ministry of Sport, the board of these clubs will consist of seven members, five of whom will be appointed by the PIF and the other two by the non-profit organisation. An unprecedented move in international football, where the strongest clubs in a league share the same owner, immediately creating more than one problem on both the sporting and financial sides. The goal of the Arab sports minister, Prince Abdullah bin Turki Al-Faisal, is to make the Saudi professional league one of the top ten leagues in the world, tripling its market value to $2.1 billion. Currently, the SPL is ranked 58th in the classification compiled by the sports news agency Twenty First Group, above Italy's Serie C but below the Scottish League.

Reaching this level in a short period of time is possible not only through organic growth of the local football movement, which has grown significantly in just a few years and is on its way to forming a national team that was even able to beat eventual World Cup champions Argentina in the last year event, but also by increasing the pressure and acquiring, along with the players, the social and non-social following they have built over their long careers. In short, the compromise Saudi Arabia wants to achieve by paying inflated salaries to great champions at the end of their careers is to cannibalise the attention of the media and their fans by directing it to the local league. This is an ambitious plan that threatens to permanently undermine the fine balance between FFP and sovereign wealth funds on which the football system is based. Not forgetting, of course, that Saudi Arabia remains a despotic state where basic human rights are not respected and freedom of expression and women's rights are severely restricted. And how the regime uses sport to normalise this situation, even entering the race for the 2030 World Cup.