Livescore Sunday, April 21

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the PGA Tour’s merger with the DP World Tour and LIV Golf.

In October 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) completed its majority takeover of Newcastle United, bringing Mike Ashley’s arduous reign to an end. They soon signalled a long-term target of winning the Premier League.

Three weeks later, LIV Golf was launched, a league intended to rival the PGA Tour. They immediately signed several of the world’s highest-ranked players, promised stacks of prize money and, in the process, threw the sport into civil war before Tuesday’s dramatic merger. “Golf has been stuck in a box for 53 years,” crowed CEO Greg Norman.

At the World Cup in Qatar last November, Saudi Arabia humbled eventual winners Argentina 2-1 in the group stage, then in January, Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League.

On Monday came Saudi Arabia’s latest sporting venture, officially announced by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de-facto ruler.

The plan? An effective relaunch of the nation’s premier domestic football competition, involving the sale of the country’s four largest clubs to PIF, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund; huge investment in the wider league and the pursuit of Europe’s most famous footballing talents.

Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, is soon to join Ronaldo in the Middle East. The striker met representatives from Al Ittihad at the Four Seasons Hotel in Madrid on Monday to finalise the deal.

The Saudi Pro League is also confident of securing Lionel Messi’s involvement — and there are more to come.

Monday’s announcement was a statement of intent backed by the highest figures in the Saudi state, with the aim of transforming the Saudi Pro League into one of the 10 best leagues in the world and tripling its market value.

Yet vast resources are no guarantee of success on football’s global stage — however mouthwatering the wages on offer might be. In 2016, the Chinese Super League began paying massive transfer fees to buy players from Europe and offering them handsome wages. Seven years later, that project has been all but extinguished.

Saudi Arabia’s announcement will also bring controversy. The nation has a terrible human rights record, homosexuality is illegal, and there are severe restrictions on freedom of speech and women’s rights. This relaunch will bring accusations of ‘sportswashing’ — that by repackaging its flagship competition for global consumption, Saudi Arabia is attempting to repackage its reputation in front of a global audience.

Saudi organisers instead say the plans form part of the nation’s Vision 2030 plan, aiming to diversify the country’s economic interests, engage a rapidly growing and young population, and embark on an unprecedented modernisation programme.

Amid competing narratives and multi-million dollar deals, The Athletic has unpicked the key details of the announcement. This is both what the news means for Saudi Arabia and what it means for world football.

What has been officially announced?

For such a seismic change in football governance, the announcement itself is relatively simple to understand.

PIF will take control of the four largest teams in the Saudi Pro League — Al Nassr, Al Hilal, Al Ittihad, and Al Ahli. These deals will be completed in time for the start of the 2023-24 season in August.

The fund will hold a 75 per cent stake in these four teams, with the other 25 per cent controlled by a non-profit organisation. The board of those clubs, according to the ministry of sport, will be made up of seven members, five of which will be appointed by PIF and the other two by the non-profit.

This is an unprecedented step in football outside of North America — for four top teams to be owned by the same organisation.

In addition, four other Pro League clubs will see their ownership structure changed with investment from other companies. Aramco, the state’s oil institution and the globe’s most valuable company, will take a stake in Al Qadsia; the Diriyah Gate Development Authority in Al Diriyah Club; Royal Commission for Al-Ula Governorate in Al Ula Club; and Neom in Al Suqoor FC.

All four of these companies are ultimately state-owned, with Neom perhaps best known as the company in charge of delivering the planned ‘smart city’ under construction in the country’s north west.

Why is this happening?

Speaking at the announcement ceremony, Saudi Arabia’s minister of sport Prince Abdullah bin Turki Al-Faisal said the aim of the project was to make the Saudi Pro League one of the top 10 leagues in the world, tripling its market value to SAR 8 billion ($2.1bn) through a combination of commercial revenue and private-sector investment.

According to sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group in January, the Saudi Pro League is rated as the 58th highest-quality league in the world, by the strength of its average team, which places it below the Scottish Premiership (49th) but above Serie C (68th) in Italy.

To improve the product and attract outside investment, though, Saudi Arabia wants to bring in the world’s top players. Remember, PIF has already walked this path with LIV Golf.

The quickest way to footballing legitimacy is the presence of the sport’s greatest stars. Realistically, organisers know they cannot compete with European sides for players at the peak of their careers who want to play in the UEFA Champions League — but they can outbid them for big-name players approaching retirement. The benefit of that approach is that these players have already cultivated recognition, fandom, and media attention.

Plans for the 2023-24 season will see each of the four PIF-owned teams target a minimum of three world-renowned names per club. A smaller number of world-renowned players are expected to be distributed among the other sides in the league.

Under current rules, Saudi teams are allowed eight foreign players in their squad. By sharing ownership, league organisers can ensure an even distribution of talent between the top teams, fostering rivalry, tightening the league table, and ultimately increasing commercial revenue.

The timing of this announcement — with 38-year-old Ronaldo already part of the project, Benzema soon to join, and Messi, 35, to potentially follow — is to piggyback on their profiles. The league is also expected to pursue high-profile managers and executives to coach and run the sides.

So Ronaldo’s already there — are Benzema and Messi on their way?

“If they are coming, big players and big names, young players, old players, they are very welcome,” said Ronaldo in a video interview with the league’s official social media channel. “If that happens, the league will improve.”

Messi, of course, already has a multi-million-pound deal with Saudi Arabia to promote tourism in the country and has been offered a separate contract by Al Hilal — worth in the region of €400milllion (£345m; $429m) per year.

“(He) is a wonderful player and a football legend,” Saudi Arabia Football Association president Yasser Al -Misehal told Spanish newspaper El Mundo. “Any league would welcome his arrival and, as a football fan, I would of course be delighted that he would one day play in Saudi Arabia.”

Despite Messi’s initial wish to carry on in European football for one more year, the scale of the Al-Hilal bid could lure him to Saudi. As of now, that seems the most likely destination.

In signing Messi, the league hope to rekindle his rivalry with Ronaldo, recreating the dualism that shaped Real Madrid vs Barcelona encounters for nearly a decade.

Benzema, effectively Ronaldo’s successor as Real’s star man, is set to follow his former forward partner to Saudi. He is poised to join recently crowned champions Al Ittihad, having had his departure confirmed by Real on Sunday.

Benzema, 35, and his representatives had a meeting at a Madrid hotel with Al Ittihad club president Anmar Al-Haili and vice president Ahmed Kaaki on Monday afternoon. The talks lasted just over an hour.

Who else might join them?

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 may also 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 PIF’s takeover of Saudi’s big four, allowing for significant academy investment.

How will this impact the summer transfer market?

It 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 £177million ($220m) a year (nearly £3.5m 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 opens in June 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, told The Athletic. “Agents are all over clubs in Saudi Arabia, so this is not them throwing themselves at the world.”

Why now?

A Saudi prince, a geopolitical scientist, a doctor, and an economist walk into a room. They all have a different answer.

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 flip side 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.”

What does this mean for a Saudi bid for the 2030 World Cup?

Good question. 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.

Though 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, though 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.

Tell me more about these four largest clubs then…

It must be stressed that these teams — known as Saudi Arabia’s ‘big four’ — are not negligible entities. Saudi Arabia does have a long footballing history and these sides are well-supported.

Al Ahli, the smallest of the four, still have 2.4 million Twitter followers — which would place them around 10th in the Premier League. Al Nassr, with the largest following, have more than every team in England outside the ‘Big Six’. Between them, the four clubs account for 96 per cent of the combined social media following of Saudi Pro League clubs.

Al Ittihad, based in the coastal city of Jeddah, are the league’s reigning champions having pipped Ronaldo’s Al Nassr to the title last weekend. They are managed by former Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers head coach Espirito Santo and are the country’s most popular side based on attendance figures. This season, they averaged 40,400 fans in their home league games.

City rivals Al Ahli were a controversial source of funding. Their surprise relegation to the second tier for the first time last year cast doubt over their inclusion in the deal, with Riyadh-based Al-Shabab, who have finished in the top four in each of the past three seasons, touted as an alternative.

“I have buried the ‘big four’ myth with my own hands,” said Al-Shabab president Khalid al-Baltan last season after Al Ahli’s relegation. Eventually, however, the decision to include Al Ahli was made based on their popularity, plus the prospect of marketing a Jeddah derby.

Al Nassr and Al Hilal are based in Riyadh, the capital and biggest city in Saudi Arabia, and finished second and third this season, respectively. As well as Ronaldo, Al Nassr also have former Arsenal and Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina. Al Hilal, the most-decorated club in Asia, have fewer internationally recognised players but boast many of the national team, including star player Salem Al-Dawsari.

So what does this mean for the league?

Change was already in the air for next season, with the Saudi Pro League increasing from 16 to 18 teams.

This was already an unequal league — with stadiums ranging in size from 62,000 to 6,000 — but these divisions are set to become exacerbated due to PIF’s investment, designed to foster rivalry between the country’s most prestigious clubs.

It looks inevitable that the differing levels of investment will turn the league into a two-tier (or even three-tier) system, but organisers argue the competition’s smaller teams will be helped by the success of the big four.

They expect the influx of big-name signings to have a trickle-down effect, with players already settled in Saudi Arabia joining mid-table and bottom-half clubs, helping to boost the overall level of the competition. Whether it works or not is another matter.

Remind me what the PIF is?

Here’s a quick guide: PIF is a sovereign wealth fund — effectively a state-owned company which attempts to generate more money for the nation through investments.

PIF is Saudi Arabia’s version, worth some $620billion (£514bn), making it the seventh largest such fund in the world. It holds stakes in some of the western world’s best-known companies, including Disney, Uber, and Boeing.

The company’s rise — and that of chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan — was detailed by The Athletic in March. In short, crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman saw it as a crucial component of Vision 2030, his plans to modernise the country.

In 2016, PIF was a tiny fund, employing fewer than 50 staff. Now, it employs more than 2,000 people.

“Bin Salman wanted to emulate the Qatari and Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth funds,” Christopher Davidson, an expert on Saudi who has published extensively on statecraft in the region, told The Athletic. “Going elsewhere in the world and acquiring assets, especially cultural assets, could deliver soft power opportunities for Saudi Arabia.”

As well as operating internationally, PIF had already moved into the domestic sports sphere. It has made a number of sponsorship agreements adding up to over $3billion, including title sponsorship of the Saudi Pro League under its real estate developer subsidy Roshn.

And what about LIV Golf?

On Tuesday, the PGA Tour and LIV Golf announced plans to merge, ending the civil war splitting the sport. The deal can be seen as a major win for the upstart Saudi league, offering it legitimacy, a seat at golf’s top table, and ending months of litigation between the sides.

At the heart of the deal is Al-Rumayyan. Before becoming chairman of Newcastle United, he was best known internationally as a golf fanatic, trying to grow opportunities for the sport in Saudi Arabia.

Tasked with delivering the ambitious vision of the crown prince, Al-Rumayyan has made his most significant move yet. It also ends the potentially risky prospect of being deposed in a US court.

They will now move forward as a new, collectively owned, for-profit entity.

“After two years of disruption and distraction, this is a historic day for the game we all know and love,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.

“This transformational partnership recognizes the immeasurable strength of the PGA Tour’s history, legacy and pro-competitive model and combines with it the DP World Tour and LIV to create an organization that will benefit golf’s players, commercial and charitable partners and fans.”

What does this mean for Newcastle United?

Right now? Very little.

Newcastle are now effectively part of a multi-club model, something the club’s ownership had already been actively exploring in Europe. Representatives had been in talks over the purchase of Belgian second-division club KV Oostende, available for around £10million.

The rise of the multi-club ownership model has been one of the most significant developments in European football in recent seasons, with more than 180 clubs across the continent now part of a larger group.

This is an unusual situation, though, with most multi-club models spread over multiple different countries, with a single club in each. Instead, Newcastle have four potential Saudi Arabian partners.

There are no indications Newcastle will set up any sort of loan pathway — in the model of Brighton & Hove Albion and Union Saint-Gilloise — though further commercial opportunities would be expected to appear as both Newcastle and the Saudi Pro League seek to improve their commercial revenue.

Newcastle are expected to have Sela, a PIF-owned events company, as next season’s front-of-shirt sponsor at a cost of £25million per year.

Additional contributors: Mario Cortegana Santos, Dan Sheldon, Ahmed Walid

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)

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