There is suddenly a little bit of excitement around one of the most ambitious plans in football. Senior sources say this week brings a lot of discussion between Saudi representatives and top players to try to convince them to join the planet’s most disruptive competition. Some involved see it as a key period for the Saudi Pro League in terms of keeping the momentum going by getting really big players.
Interest in Neymar and David De Gea is now well known, but representatives are also looking at Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, and there are offers for a number of Chelsea players. Among them are N’Golo Kante, Edouard Mendy, Romelu Lukaku, Kalidou Koulibaly, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Hakim Ziyech.
It would represent something of a pain reliever for what had been a real headache at Stamford Bridge. Over the past few months, the big question at Stamford Bridge, beyond the manager, has been who to buy the players they need to sell to trim the squad and meet Financial Fair Play requirements. Everyone “knew they were coming,” to use the industry term. The clubs would go low and well below the asking price, as Manchester United have attempted with Mason Mount.
Now suddenly there has been a solution. Chelsea could do with a lot of players for big money, giving Mauricio Pochettino a much cleaner slate to start working with.
It has raised a lot of talk in the game as well as outside. Football officials have privately pointed to the strong relationship between Chelsea majority owners Clearlake and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund [PIF]which has assets worth billions of pounds managed by the American firm.
Many in the game are now asking about Saudi influence at Chelsea, but it has long been stressed that there was no involvement in Clearlake’s 2022 purchase, and therefore no concern over potential conflicts of interest given the ownership of Newcastle United. The owner and director test will also require any influence to be declared. It is now being insisted at Stamford Bridge that the only discussions taking place are “transactional talks about players they are interested in”.
Chelsea and the Premier League have been contacted for comment.
The London club appear to have benefited from good timing, although the biggest question now is how many players will actually be convinced to move and “what will actually be done”. Lukaku is already reluctant. Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva is unlikely to even consider a proposal if it comes.
The very fact that such discussions are being held raises two broader questions for the game.
One, in the abstract, is the growing influence of private equity in football. Part of the reason such questions are being asked is that it is unclear what money is financing private equity in such takeovers. The Premier League, for example, doesn’t need to know.
There are a growing number of people in football who see the influence of private equity – right up to possible deals with Serie A and La Liga – as problematic as state ownership, especially with how the potential is for the two to overlap.
Then there is the big story of the summer, which revolves around one of the most ambitious and largest of these states. Offers from the Saudi Pro League are expected to escalate over the next few weeks as this is seen as a key phase in the project. Bringing Ruben Neves from Wolves was a coup, but they want bigger than that.
It is also why there was some disappointment at Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin’s “satisfaction” about the extent to which the Saudi Pro League’s growth could distort the game.
The Slovenian official gave an interview in Holland on the eve of the Nations League final in which he said the European game should not worry about any player exodus.
“No, no, no… I think it’s mainly a mistake for Saudi football. Why is it a problem for them? Because they should invest in academies, they should have coaches and they should develop their own players.”
“The system of buying the players who almost finished their career is not the system that develops football. It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career.”
“Tell me a player who is top, top age, who starts his career and went to Saudi Arabia? But it’s not just about money. Players want to win top competitions. And the top competition is in Europe.”
That question is something that is currently being tested, but a growing view is that Ceferin is wrong in its comparison with China. Saudi Arabia has a much more developed football culture with a good level of quality and part of this project is to improve that. There is then the wider question of football authorities’ general lack of regulation and foresight into the influence of states and capital funds.
The next few days will nevertheless tell a lot, but it is really about the next few years.