With 60 per cent of its citizens overweight, obese or diabetic Saudi Arabia now taps into football icons to fight menace  

With 60 per cent of its citizens overweight, obese or diabetic Saudi Arabia now taps into football icons to fight menace  


The coming weeks are going to see dozens of ageing stars linked with moves to Saudi Arabia.

Neymar, Pepe and Luka Modric are names who have been discussed by organisers as early as February, and Barcelona legend Sergio Busquets, who appeared for his boyhood club for the final time last week, has received a contract offer from a Saudi club. The 34-year-old has been linked with Al Hilal.

Al Ittihad have already been rumoured to have interest in Wilfried Zaha, N’Golo Kante, and Adama Traore, who played under head coach Nuno Espirito Santo at Wolves. Other high-profile players, who are either out of contract or out of favour or have announced departures from their current clubs, include Hugo Lloris, Alexis Sanchez and Roberto Firmino.

The four big teams in Saudi Arabia may feel they need new high-profile managers to get the best out of their big-name talent, while another interesting detail is how the league plans to populate teams outside of its star players.

“As our leagues become more competitive and attractive, the time will come when the world’s young talents take notice of us,” Al-Misehal said.

Last month, the Saudi Arabian FA and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) signed a five-year memorandum of understanding “to foster growth opportunities for African and Saudi football”, raising the possibility of further link-ups between the regions, particularly with Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) takeover of Saudi’s big four, allowing for significant academy investment.

The transfer market promises to be lively. The growth of the Saudi Pro League effectively opens a new frontier, which goes both ways.

Ronaldo signed a two-and-a-half-year contract worth in the region of £177 million ($220 million) a year (nearly £3.5 million per week), which no European club would ever come close to matching at his age despite his achievements across two decades.

Financial fair play is not enforced in Saudi Arabia, so clubs will not be concerned about complying with the rules that are restricting what their European counterparts can spend. Their summer transfer window opened this week and will close in September.

But it is over-simplistic to cast the Saudi Pro League as having the omnipotent ability to outbid European teams for players. The advantages go both ways. Clubs across Europe can now look at the Saudi Pro League and its vast resources as a financial fair play (FFP) dumping ground; a welcoming home for players on wages that western clubs do not want to match, or no longer want to pay, so they can comply with football’s financial regulations.

“This is not all one way,” one source familiar with the league, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships, says. “Agents are all over clubs in Saudi Arabia, so this is not them throwing themselves at the world.”

Does it divert attention from an appalling human rights record? Diversify the nation’s income away from fossil fuels? Improve their chances of hosting a men’s football World Cup? Help improve the high rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes among their young population? There is truth in all four.

“The timing of the project is a further boost to the existing momentum and major uptake of sport in Saudi Arabia,” comes the official explanation. “More Saudis, young and old, boys and girls, (are) playing more sport than ever before as part of more active and healthy lifestyles. Mass participation in sport has increased from 13 per cent in 2015 to close to 50 per cent in 2022 and the number of sports federations has increased from 32 in 2015 to over 95 in 2022, demonstrating the investment potential.”

There is undoubtedly a public health benefit. Seventy per cent of the population are aged under 35, with the government keen to improve the statistic that some 60 per cent of the population are overweight or obese. One aim, given by Al-Misehal, is to increase the number of registered male players from 21,000 to over 200,000. He did not mention a target for female players.

According to figures in Saudi Arabia, attendances at its football matches have doubled year on year since Ronaldo started playing there in January. Spectators at Al Nassr’s fixtures, including both home and away games, are up 143 per cent year on year.

It is no surprise that Saudi Arabia wants to host a Fifa World Cup, another key strand of Vision 2030. Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School, argues the impact of these investments on Saudi Arabia’s young population are undervalued.

“In terms of who is being sportswashed, up until now there is this view that people in Europe and Northern America have been externally sportswashed, but there is an argument that the bigger washing is taking place internally,” he says.

“What Mohammed bin Salman and his advisors don’t want is gangs of 26-year-old guys taking to the streets and plotting the overthrow of the royal family because they have to live their lives differently to the rest of the world. Essentially, what the government is now doing is saying: ‘Well, if you want Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, we’ll give them to you’.

“But the flipside to that is they do not want to be questioned. So far this year, there have been more arrests of people in Saudi Arabia for posting negative comments about the government than ever before. The contract is that you can have whatever you want, but don’t question us.”

Saudi Arabia has not limited its sports spending to the club scene, recognising the soft power opportunity of international tournaments, where foreign attention is focused on the country.

They have already won the right to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup and are bidding to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. World football’s governing body Fifa dropped plans for Visit Saudi to sponsor the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this July and August after a backlash led by women’s players.

Although their intentions have not been officially announced, it is believed the country is keen to host a men’s World Cup. It was the source of geopolitical embarrassment that Qatar, a far smaller neighbour with a far inferior footballing heritage, was the first Gulf nation to host the tournament.

A bid for the 2030 edition is expected, although Saudi Arabia may yet choose to target the subsequent tournament, especially with strong joint proposals already announced by Argentina and Uruguay, and another from Spain, Portugal, Ukraine and Morocco.

  • The Athletic report
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