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Saudi Arabia buys increased global soccer status

Tim Baysinger
Aug 16, 2023

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Saudi Arabia is quickly making inroads into the global soccer market after luring some of the sport's top players away from more prestigious leagues.

Why it matters: Sports are a key pillar in the Saudi kingdom's Vision 2030 program, which seeks to diversify the country's economy away from oil exports.

Driving the news: Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar Jr. became the latest to leave Europe for Saudi Arabia, when Al-Hilal announced a two-year contract with the 31-year-old Tuesday.

  • Neymar's contract reportedly could be worth as much as $400 million including commercial deals and other incentives.
  • Neymar joins a growing list of soccer stars choosing to play for Saudi clubs, including Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema — who won the Ballon d'Or last year — N'Golo Kanté, Kalidou Koulibaly, Moussa Dembélé and Riyad Mahrez.

The big picture: The Saudi Pro League has been around for almost 50 years, but Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund is seeking to bolster the league's global standing.

  • As part of its Sports Clubs Investment and Privatization Project announced in June, the PIF took majority control of four Pro League clubs — Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, and Al-Ahli — all of which have since spent eye-popping sums of money to attract star players.
  • Al-Hilal also tried, unsuccessfully, to sign Neymar's PSG teammates Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi.
  • The privatization project's goal is to increase the league's revenue from $120 million in 2022 to more than $480 million annually, and increase its market value to $2.1 billion by 2030.

Of note: The PIF became the majority owner of Premier League club Newcastle in 2021.

Be smart: The Saudis are employing a very similar, if less overt, strategy that it did with golf: Outspend the more prestigious and established competitors for the best talent.

  • Saudi teams are not bound by UEFA rules that govern how much those clubs can spend on players.
  • "The league would like to have all the top players. And I think it is something that will be at the heart of this strategy," Saudi Pro League director Michael Emenalo said Sunday. "In a couple of years, in a few short years, this will become a league for exceptional players only."

The bottom line: It's doubtful that the Saudis can ever upend the major European leagues in stature, but they're now a legitimate competitor for the world's best players.

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