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How Is Saudi Arabia Attracting All the Famous Footballers?

Saudi Arabia has been making headlines in the world of football lately. The wealthy nation is busy in signing some of the most famous and expensive players in the sport. After Cristiano Ronaldo, the Kingdom has landed the likes of Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino, N’Golo Kante, Marcelo Brozovic, Ruben Neves, Edouard Mendy, and David Ospina. Furthermore, former footballer and Liverpool legend Steven Gerard has also been appointed as the head coach of Saudi Pro League (SPL) side Al-Ettifaq.

One may wonder if big money is the reason behind all these huge transfers. Money is definitely a motivating factor for any player but not the only one. The reasons for beloved European stars leaving their top flight leagues in favor of an Arab country goes beyond money.

Saudi Vision 2030 and Football

Football superstars joining SPL is a partial fruition of the Saudi Vision 2030, a strategic plan launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2016 to diversify the economy and modernize the society of Saudi Arabia. One of the pillars of this vision is to develop the sports sector and promote physical activity among the population. To achieve this, the Saudi government has invested heavily in building new stadiums, hosting international events and attracting top players and coaches to its domestic league.

The Kingdom offers lucrative contracts to footballers who are willing to play in its league, often exceeding what they can earn in Europe or elsewhere. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo’s income in England was around 34 million USD per year when he played for Manchester United. Now, his income in KSA is reportedly 207 million USD per year after he joined Al-Nassr. That means he is earning nearly 8 times more in Saudi Arabia than he did in England. He has not only become the most expensive footballer but the highest-paid athlete in the world.

Gaining an Upper Hand

KSA aims to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil with the help of football marketing. It is the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, but has been hit hard by the fluctuations in oil prices and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Vision 2030 plan aims to create new sources of income and employment, especially for its young population. Football is seen as a key sector that can generate revenue, tourism, entertainment and innovation.

This will also allow KSA to boost its global image and reputation. The country has long faced criticism and scrutiny for its human rights record. For example, its involvement in the Yemen war, and its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. By attracting world-class talent and hosting major events, such as the Asian Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup, Saudi Arabia hopes to showcase its modernization and development, as well as its cultural and sporting achievements.

Moreover, KSA would love to demonstrate its power and prestige, in front of its regional rivals by securing big-names in football. The Kingdom is locked in a geopolitical competition with Iran, Turkey and Qatar, which have also invested heavily in football. Qatar, in particular, has been a thorn in the Kingdom’s side, as it won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, despite a diplomatic blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and its allies.

Cultural Experience

Saudi Arabia is a country with a rich history, culture and religion that can be appealing to some footballers who want to explore a different way of life. The country has also relaxed some of its social restrictions in recent years, allowing women to drive, cinemas to open and concerts to take place. Some footballers have expressed their admiration for the hospitality, generosity and kindness of the Saudi people, as well as their respect for Islam.

However, everything that glitters is not gold in Saudi Arabia. The country still faces criticism for its human rights record, especially regarding the treatment of women, minorities and dissidents. Some footballers have faced backlash from their fans and the media for moving to Saudi Arabia, accusing them of being greedy or hypocritical. Some have also encountered difficulties in adapting to the climate, language and culture of Saudi Arabia, or have faced injuries or poor performances on the pitch.

Risks and Challenges

Saudi Arabia’s football ambitions are facing serious hurdles that can derail its vision. Some of the players and clubs that have been approached by Saudi Arabia have expressed doubts or reservations about moving there, citing concerns over human rights, security, culture and lifestyle. Some fans and media outlets have also criticized or boycotted Saudi Arabia’s involvement in football, accusing it of “sportswashing” its image and violating international norms and values. Moreover, some experts have questioned the sustainability and feasibility of Saudi Arabia’s plans, given the high costs and uncertain returns.

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of infrastructure and facilities for football development. According to FIFA, KSA has only 153 football pitches for a population of over 34 million people, which is far below the global average. Moreover, many of these pitches are in poor condition, lacking proper lighting, drainage, or grass. This limits the opportunities for young players to practice and improve their skills, as well as for fans to enjoy watching live matches.

Another challenge is the low level of competitiveness and professionalism in the Saudi Professional League (SPL). The top division league suffers from a lack of financial transparency, governance, and regulation, which leads to issues such as match-fixing, corruption, and mismanagement. Moreover, the SPL is dominated by a few clubs that have access to large budgets and foreign players, while the rest struggle to survive and develop local talent.

What Steps Have KSA Taken?

To address these issues, KSA has launched several initiatives to build and renovate football stadiums and training centers across the country. For example, the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, which opened in 2014, is a state-of-the-art complex that includes a 62,000-seat stadium, a 10,000-seat indoor arena, and several other facilities for various sports. Another example is the Qiddiya Sports and Entertainment City near Riyadh, which is expected to be completed by 2030 and will feature a 20,000-seat stadium, a FIFA-accredited football academy, and a sports museum.

To improve the quality and attractiveness of the SPL, Saudi Arabia has introduced several reforms and initiatives in recent years. For example, it has implemented a financial fair play system that limits the spending and debt of clubs, as well as a licensing system that sets minimum standards for clubs in terms of infrastructure, administration, and youth development. It has also launched the Saudi Vision League (SVL), a new competition that aims to increase the exposure and revenue of lower-tier clubs and create a more balanced and competitive league structure.

Famous footballers have a chance to be part of a growing and ambitious league, which aims to be one of the top five in the world. SPL has been boosted by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund buying a majority stake in the four biggest clubs and offering high wages to attract star players. They like the possibility to develop the sport in a new market, which may have social and cultural benefits. Saudi Arabia is indeed a football-loving nation, but it has never been very successful at the international level. The interest and arrival of bug European players can help improve the quality and popularity of the game in the country.

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