It’s the time of year when Premier League managers can take a break, get away from it all, switch off, relax – or, in fact, spend sunny days in a state of high anxiety, preoccupied with constant updates on their club’s transfer activity or lack thereof.
Still, at least they get a break from the usual routine of press conferences, pre-match interviews, post-match interviews – and there would be no more pressing question right now than what they think of Saudi Pro League phenom Karim Benzema , N’Golo Kante and Ruben Neves are blazing a trail to the Middle East, while Kalidou Koulibaly, Hakim Ziyech, Luka Modric and others such as Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez are considering whether they can really turn down the huge sums on offer.
We can guess what most of these managers would make of it, though, because English football has been through something similar before.
For the Saudi Pro League in 2023, read the Chinese Super League for a period in 2016 and 2017 when Chelsea playmaker Oscar joined Shanghai SIPG in a deal worth £400,000 a week, figures that dwindled when Carlos Tevez pitched Shanghai Shenhua for more than £600,000 a week.
Of course it didn’t last. The Chinese Super League bubble burst well and truly. But for a time the Premier League coaching fraternity was seriously worried as one leading player after another had their heads turned by the wages on offer.
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Arsene Wenger said “we (the Premier League) have to be worried” because China appeared to have the political will and financial strength “to lure every player from Europe”. Antonio Conte, who has lost Oscar midway through a title-winning season, warned that “the Chinese market is a danger for everyone – not just for Chelsea but for every team in the world”.
Similar opinions have been raised this week regarding the Saudi Pro League. Not by managers, but by pundits such as former Liverpool and England defender Jamie Carragher, who warns that the capture of a player of Bernardo’s quality, at the age of 28, would be “a game-changer” , adding that “Saudi has taken over the golf course, the big boxing matches and now they want to take over football”.
Carragher’s concerns are justified when it comes to the idea of a threatened Saudi “takeover” of the sport and the supposed motivation behind it.
First it was the public investment fund that bought Newcastle United. Now it is the same foundation that is leading four clubs’ bid to lure the best and biggest talent in the game to Riyadh and Jeddah – as well as this year’s Club World Cup. Sooner or later it will be an attempt to settle the World Cup and, no doubt before much longer, a Champions League final or any rival club competition that may emerge over the next decade.
Inevitably, some on social media accused Carragher of racism and Islamophobia. It’s nothing of the sort. He and many others would say the same if it was Major League Soccer that got top-level Premier League players, while clubs, institutions and events were not targeted by American individuals and investment groups (few of which attract the slightest affection in England , to be clear), but by the US state.
The threat to the fabric and soul of the game is real. No football club should be owned by a state or by anyone operating on behalf of a state – and that fundamental principle should apply to Iceland, which tops the global peace index year after year. International and other groups.
The thought of football going the golf course and selling out is terrifying. So many clubs in Europe can trace their history back to the 19th century. They still compete in the same domestic competitions as they did then. Their raison d’être has never changed – nor should it, even if one day someone comes along and proposes a breakaway competition that would destroy the tradition of club football as we know and love it.
But if there’s one country where craft over Saudi Arabia’s football ambitions should give way to serious soul-searching, it’s England. The Premier League’s growth over the past two decades has been underpinned by a total disregard for the source of inward investment and for the impact on the wider game.
It would be hypocritical in the extreme for anyone connected to English football to complain that another league is luring away players by offering mindless contracts. This has been at the heart of the Premier League’s expansion since the mid-1990s, never mind over the last few seasons where we’ve reached a stage where England boasted three of Europe’s four top-grossing clubs in 2021-22 , and according to Deloitte rankings, 16 of the top 30.
Another Deloitte study revealed that the Premier League’s gross spending in the January transfer window was £815 million. Top-tier clubs in France, Germany, Italy and Spain spent £220m between them.
Choose the most symbolic of these January offers. Keylor Navas to leave Paris Saint-Germain on loan for Nottingham Forest relegation battle? Udinese make the biggest signing of any Serie A club to pay Fluminense €7m for Brazilian youngster Matheus Martins, only to send him on loan to Watford in the Championship? Chelsea spending £105m on Enzo Fernandez, who Benfica had signed for £12.3m just six months earlier?
Go and ask the people in charge of other clubs across Europe what they have made of the Premier League’s approach to the transfer market. Well, not necessary. The responses when we asked that question in February reflected that even when it suits a club to accept the huge sums on offer, it tends to leave serious concerns about having so much of European football’s wealth and talent concentrated in one league.
Premier League clubs have now actively sought to colonize other clubs, not content to bleed other leagues of their best talent, often simply to make up the numbers in a squad. The multi-club ownership model is growing rapidly and Manchester City are blazing a trail that so many other clubs are now trying to follow.
Multi-club projects are dangerous for the future and structure of football
The obvious answer to questions about the Premier League’s financial excesses is that its clubs only spend the money they generate through the huge international broadcasting deals that rival leagues envy – that this is not just the product of imaginative marketing but of a footballing culture, that has grown organically since the 19th century (rather than, in the case of the Chinese Super League, on the impulse of a government that suddenly and all too briefly sees sport as a way to win friends and influence statesmen).
But the financial superiority of English football is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2009, the combined debt of the 20 Premier League clubs was £3.1 billion. It is only over the past decade, since the introduction of financial regulation, that clubs have started to operate more stably – or at least they have until the last few seasons, when 13 of the 20 Premier League clubs running at a loss in 2021-22 (more than £100m in losses in the case of Chelsea and Manchester United).
Few stopped to worry about where Chelsea’s money came from or what intricacies might be involved when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, which immediately sent shockwaves through the European football ecosystem, or when Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City five years later. Very few people stopped to ask questions about the people who pumped money into (or claimed to pump into) Portsmouth – or indeed about the people who pumped money out of Manchester United.
And when a country’s modern football culture is built on capitalism – and when, in the cases of Chelsea under Abramovich, Manchester City under Sheikh Mansour and the PIF regime at Newcastle, modern sporting empires have been built with oil money with any wider strategic goals in mind – any complaints about the Saudi Pro League should be tempered by an awareness of the danger of sounding hypocritical.
To his credit, former Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore recognized this at the height of the Chinese Super League phenomenon.
“We welcome the competition in many ways,” he said when Indian broadcaster WION asked him about the Chinese Super League in 2017. “And also how could we possibly be worried about other leagues coming and doing what our clubs do all the time. ?Our clubs are using their financial muscle to bring in talent from abroad and from within English football, so we can’t sit here and be concerned or worried about that.”
Indeed not. And as it happened, with regard to China, they were right not to worry. Almost as quickly as President Xi Jinping called for mass investment in football – in the acquisition of playing talent from abroad and by clubs in Europe, not least in the Premier League – he appeared to turn a blind eye to the idea. The Chinese Super League offers a cautionary tale for the Saudi Pro League or any league expecting to be transformed overnight.
English football has nothing to fear from the Saudi Pro League. Even if they came after Pep Guardiola, Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Erling Haaland and the rest, fear would be the wrong feeling here. English football has played into the hands of those who believe the game is for sale to the highest bidder. It would be nice if it prompted some soul-searching, but it hardly does. It never does.
(Top photo: Al Ittihad Football Club / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)