It is a surreal sight when you can see a World Cup champion grocery shopping in Florida, mostly unbothered, but that is a by-product of Lionel Messi and his move to Inter Miami. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner officially signed with the MLS club this weekend for around 50-60 million dollars a year, instead of an offer somewhere in the range of 400 million dollars annually from the Saudi club Al Hilal. He is perhaps the only big name not successfully courted by the Saudi Pro League this summer.
A few days before Messi made his decision, it was Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sports announced that the country’s public investment fund would take majority control of four clubs in the SPL: Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad. Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr last December, remains the most popular player to join the league, but the summer transfer window has revealed a wider plan: offer absurdly lucrative deals to guys who might be past their prime, but still has a lot of name recognition.
ONE New York Times report published last Thursday provided some interesting details within the strategy. The PIF will provide a reported $800 million to sign players who would bring the SPL attention and stature. The goal is to make “at least 18 high-profile signings,” and they’ve been rolling in over the last month or so. Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Jota have deals with Al Ittihad; Rúben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic went to Al Hilal; Édouard Mendy and Roberto Firmino joined Al Ahli; and Steven Gerrard agreed to coach Al Ettifaq, introducing himself with the time-honored tradition of putting down the Arabic language.
The playbook bears some resemblance to that used by Major League Soccer, but in the case of MLS, all teams are centrally run under a single entity structure. The individual clubs have funding from rich guys like Arthur Blank or David Tepper, but they are more like investors, since the league owns all the teams and contracts. In the SPL’s case, the PIF has the four clubs it bought last month and influence over what to do with the hundreds of millions it will contribute, but responsibility for how they are spent rests with the league’s interim chief executive, Saad Al-Lazeez. The plan, as theorized in an article from The Athletic earlier this month, is to make these four clubs valuable and attractive enough for private investors to buy them, creating an external presence for the league. Afterwards, they would try it again:
If that plan proves successful, there could be a scenario where the PIF then take control of the nation’s next four biggest sides and attempt to repeat the process. Doing so allows the league to change from being 18 state-owned clubs to 18 privately-owned clubs, which in turn means they don’t have to rely on the government for funding. “Think of how much money you can generate by selling Al Nassr to private investors, especially those who want to work more with the oil industry and curry favor in the area,” said a source.
The Chinese Super League tried something similar in 2016 when it did a run in top players in Europe during the transfer window, but the buzz created by these moves was temporary. By learning from that mistake, PIF hopes to be more precise in throwing money around. That NOW the report indicated that every club is supposed to be on the same page here. Pursue players in their early 30s and effectively engage in a bit of collusion to maximize splashy signings:
Any player with an annual salary of more than $3 million must be approved by the league. The teams were not supposed to negotiate against each other, and any player found to be using a team as a bargaining chip to get a more lucrative salary from a rival would be immediately blacklisted. The teams were encouraged to think collectively. The idea of appointing a sporting director to work across the league as a whole was suggested. The role may soon be handed over to Michael Emenalo, who once held that post at Chelsea.
For the time being, however, the clubs were given a certain degree of autonomy. They would be able to pursue the goals that they felt best suited their needs. They didn’t want to have to accept players against their wishes.
Other small obstacles remain. For example, a few SPL clubs still have outstanding balances from previous draws. FIFA said last week that Al Nassr is banned from registering new players until it pays a debt owed to Leicester City over a player sale in 2018. However, this feels more like a formality than anything else; PIF’s infusion should be able to settle any fees in the hundreds of thousands or early millions.
Will the attention on a Saudi sports project last? LIV Golf was a screaming project that wasn’t supposed to last, and look where it is now: in an excruciatingly long merger with the PGA Tour. Ultimately, it’s all in line with Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan: Enter sports, diversify the country’s economy and gain geopolitical influence. The next step after building a respectable domestic league would be to do what Qatar did last year. Saudi Arabia had eyes on hosting a World Cup in 2030 in a joint effort with Greece and Egypt, but withdrew the bid in June. It would make sense if they put together a pitch for the 2034 edition.
For now, Saudi Arabia will focus on the SPL. And if this influx of name-brand players doesn’t work, the PIF might just buy an American Football League. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has already entertained some kind of future relationship. “The NHL and the NBA have looked at having sovereign wealth funds and pension funds,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg TV last Thursday. “MLS is looking at the same thing.”
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