Premier League and Fifa helpless against Saudi juggernaut’s relentless progress

<span>Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP</span>” data-src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/” src=”–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/”></img></p>
<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: Amr Nabil/AP</span></figcaption></p>
<p>Football is far from perfect but it is a thing we love. It has existed in its present form for more than a century and a half. It has its rituals and its routines. It has taken on a cultural significance way beyond what is reasonable. It is a way for parents to commune with children, for exiles to maintain their links to home, a source of pride and identity for areas otherwise left behind. It lubricates the cogs of social interaction. It is everywhere: on televisions, on radios, on phones, in background conversations in offices and pubs and schools.</p>
<p>And it is under threat – at least in the form in which we recognise it.</p>
<p>It’s not just the Saudis. It’s not just nation states or their public investment funds. It’s also private equity, any of the investors whose business at the club is not the protection of a vital community asset.</p>
<p>But it’s worse when it’s a state that murdered Jamal Khashoggi, that jailed and allegedly tortured Loujain al-Hathloul, that in 2022 carried out 81 executions in 24 hours for crimes including “deviant beliefs”. And it’s worse when it’s the Saudis because they have so much more money than anybody else. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund may have invested at least $6bn in sport since the beginning of 2021 but, in the last week of June, the Saudi government signed contracts worth $18bn.</p>
<p>All of this is only part of Vision 2030, a $7trillion project to diversify the economy that includes vast infrastructure projects such as The Line, part of the planned Neom area in the desert, as well as investment in a range of sports including golf, Formula One, boxing, tennis, cricket and esports.</p>
<p><span>Related: </span>Jordan Henderson no longer an LGBTQ+ ally after Saudi move, says Hitzlsperger</p>
<p>Sport may not directly make a profit, but it helps to massage the country’s image – far better to be known for trying to sign Kylian Mbappé than for dismembering a journalist in an embassy.</p>
<p>Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, insisted on Monday that he “wouldn’t be too concerned” by the growing Saudi influence over football, which makes you wonder just what would concern him.</p>
<p>It is standard practice for a league that is looking to elevate itself to sign ageing stars: it is what happened in Japan, Australia, India and China and continues to happen in the United States. Even the Premier League started off that way before mammoth broadcasting deals allowed its clubs to dominate the market.</p>
<p>But the Saudi Pro League is different because there does not appear to be any thought of balancing the books: once a certain credibility is established, there is no reason why stars at their peak should not follow. That’s why Al-Hilal’s huge offer for Mbappé made a certain warped sense as a means of grabbing the world’s attention.</p>
<p>That Jordan Henderson, previously such an advocate of LGBTQ+ rights, can be hired suggests how pretty much everybody can be bought; the welcome video put out by his new club Al-Ettifaq (not one of those owned directly by the PIF) turned his rainbow armband black and white, which seemed a pretty good metaphor both for his reputation and the impact in football as a whole.</p>
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Jordan Henderson’s video announcement as a new signing for Al-Ettifaq was accompanied by an unsubtle effect that turned a rainbow armband he wore at Liverpool black and white. Photograph: Al-Ettifaq Media Office/Reuters

It’s different too because the Saudi PIF owns multiple clubs, something else that bafflingly doesn’t much seem to concern football’s administrators. Chelsea have already raised £35.5m in fees while reducing their wage bill, easing financial fair play concerns, by selling three players to Saudi clubs. Perhaps it is coincidence that the Saudi PIF is a major investor in Clearlake Capital that owns 60% of Chelsea, but it would be reassuring to know that somebody in authority is at least asking questions about that.

Allan Saint-Maximin’s probable move from Newcastle to Al-Ahli, from one PIF club to another, offers a more overt example of how money could be injected into a Premier League club in an FFP-compliant way, but Masters insists the Premier League regulations are “robust”. More robust, hopefully, than the “legally binding guarantees” he received that the PIF is independent from the state a few months before, resisting discovery in a US federal court, it described itself as “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

Yet, really, what can Masters do? What can any of football’s authorities do? One of the emails leaked by Der Spiegel in 2018 suggested the Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak had said that “he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years” than accept a deal on FFP breaches. How can any football authority risk that?

This is why state-run clubs are so insidious: they are essentially ungovernable. Or at least they are without state support of their own – but Boris Johnson’s UK government lobbied the Premier League to approve the Saudi takeover of Newcastle. There is a sense of hopelessness: football is helpless in the face of an external force whose resources are beyond comprehension.

That said, it appears now that the World Cup is unlikely to go to the joint Saudi Arabia-Greece-Egypt bid in 2030 – or rather, that the bid will never be formally submitted. That came as something of a surprise given how Saudi investment in multiple smaller Fifa members had seemed to be securing votes, but it appears the possibility of defeat to the Spain-Portugal-Morocco bid led the Saudis to delay to 2034 when there will be no Uefa-dominated candidate. Which opens the way for more formalised collaboration with Uefa.

The end point is unclear but if PIF’s investment in the Saudi Pro League does continue, if Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli do become viable destinations for the world’s best players, why should it not in time attract an audience? Might it not actually be more appealing to watch a Big Four battle it out than the annual processions in Germany or France (or, perhaps, if City’s domination goes on, England)?

And then what? Would those Saudi clubs – and the global audience – be satisfied with appearances in the Club World Cup? Might not Uefa, locked in its power struggle with Fifa, decide to admit Saudi clubs to the Champions League rather than risk some Saudi-backed Fifa-run global super league?

Karim Benzema is introduced to Al-Ittihad fans at King Abdullah Stadium in Jeddah

Karim Benzema is one of the highest profile recent arrivals in the Saudi Pro League, having signed for Al-Ittihad last month. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Masters observed that it took the Premier League 30 years to make itself pre-eminent – but it wasn’t part of a $7trillion state project. It is not as though Europe’s elite clubs have ever willingly rejected the offer of more cash. Fifa might not like the idea of a pan-confederational tournament – but then Fifa needs Saudi money as well.

The football, probably, would still be good. We would still watch. The global fanbase might not care, but football would drift even further from the game our grandparents shuffled along to watch when the factories and shipyards kicked out on a Saturday lunchtime. It would become just another entertainment, its social function diminished. And perhaps then we might be less ready to forgive it its faults.

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