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“All roads lead to one man. Look at who announced it on national television.”

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, is on a one-man journey to transform how his nation is seen — both by the global community and by its own 35 million people.

It is infamous for a scourge of human rights abuses, including the criminalisation of homosexuality, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and women’s rights, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In combatting that reputation, plus appeasing a rapidly growing and youthful population, Bin Salman has alighted on sport — he views it as critical to solving that equation.

For example, government sources have indicated to The Athletic that Saudi Arabia is aiming to host 25 world championships across a number of sports by 2030. At the World Cup, football’s greatest stage, Bin Salman was conspicuous, attending matches, sitting next to Gianni Infantino, and announcing a national holiday after Saudi Arabia beat Argentina. A bid for either the 2030 or 2034 editions looks in the offing.

Publicly, the Saudi government insists the reason for this sporting expansion is to create investment opportunities, improve public health, and develop sporting infrastructure.

Last week, within the space of 24 hours, Saudi Arabia took its most significant sporting steps yet. On Monday, they announced a revamped Saudi Pro League, with the country’s sovereign wealth fund, PIF (who already own an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle United), taking ownership of the country’s four largest clubs — Al Ittihad, Al Hilal, Al Ahli, and Al Nassr. Collectively and historically, they are known as Saudi’s ‘big four’. A further four teams received investment from other state-owned companies.

Of course, the players had already begun to arrive, headed by Cristiano Ronaldo joining Al Nassr in January. The reigning Ballon d’Or winner, Karim Benzema, was announced as an Al Ittihad player late last week. Al Hilal were close to signing Lionel Messi. N’Golo Kante may be the next arrival. The contracts are stratospheric and the message is clear: Saudi Arabia wants to disrupt world football.

One day later, they did the same with golf. It was a shocking announcement — that the PGA Tour was merging with PIF-funded upstart LIV Golf, bringing an end to months of rancour and folders upon folders of litigation. PIF chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan was to become golf’s most powerful figure — giving Saudi Arabia another seat at the table.

This is the global context behind football’s latest shake-up — but amidst the money, the glamour and the PR spin remains instability, financial uncertainty and a hefty degree of disorganisation.

Over the past few weeks, The Athletic has spoken to league organisers, clubs, agents, players and Saudi experts, the majority speaking anonymously to protect their current positions. This is the story of the Saudi Pro League.

It is important to know two things about Saudi Arabia. It is young — 70 per cent of the population are under 35. It is also football-obsessed. Since Ronaldo joined, attendance at Al Nassr games is up by 143 per cent. That is set to multiply across the league.

“I still can’t believe we got Benzema,” Rola, a 26-year-old female Al Ittihad fan, told The Athletic. “He’s a dream signing. It’s not just quality on the pitch but also global publicity and interest in our club.”

It is public knowledge that global publicity is a key part of the Saudi plan. According to Bin Salman, one key “strategic objective” is “to create qualitative opportunities and an attractive environment for investment in the sports sector”. One key motivation behind his Vision 2030 masterplan is to divert the Saudi economy away from fossil fuels. The aim is to triple the league’s market value to SAR 8 billion (£1.7bn; $2.1bn) through a combination of commercial revenue and private-sector investment. Since Ronaldo joined, ticket prices have gone up to SAR 150 (£30), having previously been around SAR 10.

Another potential impact, heavily briefed by competition organisers, are potential public health benefits. The government is keen to improve the statistic that some 60 per cent of the population are overweight or obese. One aim, given by Yasser Al-Misehal, the president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, is to increase the number of registered male players from 21,000 to more than 200,000. He did not mention a target for female players.

“I’m grateful to the club president, the Minister of Sport and the Crown Prince for everything they’re doing for Saudi football and our club,” adds Rola. “After Benzema, we will see more big names join and take us back to our glory days.”

Her words demonstrate another truth behind Bin Salman’s agenda. Vision 2030 is not just about how Saudi Arabia presents itself to the world, but how it presents itself to its own people.

“What Mohammed bin Salman and his advisers 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,” says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School. “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.”

Bin Salman’s desire to appeal to the country at large is visible from the choice of clubs to receive private investment. Not only is it the four largest clubs in Saudi Arabia, but also Al Qadsia, in the eastern region, and Al Ula, the homeland of the ancient Thamudi tribe, both keeping the provinces onside. Al Diriyah, from the birthplace of Wahhabism, has also received funding.

There has still been a degree of internal controversy — though delicately expressed. Fans of Al Shabab, the country’s fifth-largest club, are upset not to have received funding, especially having finished in the top four for the past three seasons. Al Ahli, who experienced a shock relegation in 2021-22 and have only just been promoted back to the top division, received PIF investment instead thanks to their historic popularity, plus the prospect of marketing a Jeddah derby.

“Al Shabab is an attractive club for investment,” says an Al Shabab fan known on Twitter as Nwayser. “The club’s prime location within Riyadh is better than those of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr. We have our own stadium, which is set to re-open soon, we have a big history and tradition as a club as well as the potential to attract more fans.”

There are real fears that investing in the top four clubs will lead to a two-tier league. However, organisers are confident there will be a trickle-down effect, with players previously at the ‘big four’ moving to mid-tier sides as global superstars arrive. 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.

“It’s going to help local players,” emphasises Thierno Alimou Diallo, an agent for Wonder Sports and Entertainment Group, who has lived and worked in the Middle East for almost 15 years. “It’s going to help local players seeing Cristiano Ronaldo in training, looking at what he’s doing. It will give them confidence.

“There was one boy, I can remember, when he saw Cristiano Ronaldo training with him on the same pitch, he was crying. So it goes beyond the money.”

It also goes beyond Saudi Arabia. This is intended as an instrument of soft power.

“Saudi Arabia sees itself as being at the centre of a new world order,” says Chadwick. “By fulfilling that position through sport, it acquires legitimacy. The PGA Tour was founded in 1929. The legitimacy it has taken the PGA Tour nearly a century to acquire, Saudi Arabia has effectively achieved in just over two years by buying it.”

Their plans are equally ambitious when it comes to football. The nation’s aim is to become one of the top 10 leagues in the world by 2030 — but as of January, according to sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group, the Saudi Pro League was the 58th highest-quality league in the world. That places it below the Scottish Premiership (49th).

Despite the current lack of success, global interest is already ramping up. Al Ahli, the smallest of the four, 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’.

The Saudi Pro League has pinned a video of Ronaldo to the top of their Twitter feed. In it, the Portugal star says: “Riyadh is one of the best places I have ever seen, with the most quality restaurants. With what the country is building for the future — I like to see different things, try different things. This is why I am here.”

It is not a subtle attempt to influence. It has more than two million views on Twitter.

“Whether it’s sportswashing or not, why would it matter to me?” says Ali, an Al Ahli fan. “As you saw in Qatar, we love football as much as anyone else. The league I’ve been watching since I was a kid can now host names such as Benzema and Ronaldo. That’s all that matters to me. They can call it sportswashing, but if everyone is happy then what is the issue?”

Hosting a World Cup is a key objective. It is extremely possible Saudi Arabia will host either the 2030 or 2034 tournament — the hardest and most tangible of soft power opportunities. Notably, the Saudi FA’s internal action plan ends in 2034.

Is the Pro League central to that pursuit? “If they were going to bid, they’d bid anyway,” says one source close to the Saudi FA. “Look at the LIV merger as an example of paying whatever to get what they want.”

This will hardly harm their cause. A memorandum of understanding signed with CAF (Confederation of African Football) earlier this year will improve the likelihood of receiving World Cup support from the African voting block, especially with emerging talent from the continent more likely to receive opportunities in the new-look Saudi league.

High-value deals with European broadcasters will be negotiated, leading to an improvement in commercial facilities. One criticism of Saudi football historically has been a lack of facilities outside one or two key venues — this influx of talent is likely to supercharge that development. With PIF’s backing, spending is expected to become more efficient.

Ronaldo and his entourage are “personally directing” the development of Al Nassr’s facilities, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Infamously, the global feed went down during his debut for the club. Saudi Arabia wants him to be seen. However, they also want other players to join him.

Murmurs about other players being targeted began in February, soon after Ronaldo’s arrival. Neymar, Pepe, Luka Modric and Messi were all among the early names mentioned. The typical profile is an ageing international player with a global profile, ideally one with a history of individual awards. Ronaldo’s $200million-a-year wage is a benchmark measured against all other prospective deals.

Some of the reported contracts, especially for less prestigious players, have been exaggerated, with not all money guaranteed and this is partially to add to the hype around the league. Nevertheless, their deals are still significantly more than any top European club is realistically able to offer.

“It is about a small number of superstar players, not just a trolley dash around the world,” says one source familiar with the recruitment process. However, with the waters muddied by a number of parties — due to a desire to centralise decision-making surrounding the distribution of key players — chaos has resulted.

According to sources in Saudi, despite the reality often being different, this is how the recruitment process typically works in theory: clubs are responsible for deciding where they need to strengthen. Once they identify a player, they will seek approval from the Saudi Pro League. The government — in particular the Ministry of Sport and PIF — will sanction the release of funds.

However, that changes in the case of a Messi, a Ronaldo or a Benzema. For global stars, negotiations have typically been led by a government delegation, thought to include representatives for PIF, the Ministry of Sport, and the Ministry of Tourism. They have also been working with consultants from Deloitte.

Typically, they have gone straight to the player’s camp rather than using intermediaries. Once the deal is agreed, club representatives swoop in to take the photos, sign the contracts and hold up the shirt. In Benzema’s case, Al Ittihad representatives met him at the Four Seasons Hotel in Madrid late in the process.

“The Crown Prince himself told the clubs he wanted to bring players to attract tourism and things like that,” says Diallo. “He said, ‘I’ll put money in your account, go and bring any player you want.’ He did that for all the clubs, even the small ones. When they go to sign a player, they just try to put a number that you cannot refuse. They did that for Benzema.”

Some sources say a key figure in this process has been Garry Cook, a former Manchester City executive who had been working as the Pro League’s CEO since January. However, The Athletic revealed on Wednesday that Cook had agreed a deal to return to England to join Birmingham City. It has been suggested that the disorganisation behind player recruitment is a factor behind this, although Birmingham City are his hometown club.

For example, The Athletic can reveal that Ronaldo and his entourage have been actively looking for players in La Liga to join him at Al Nassr. “I knew that me going to Saudi Arabia would open a box and I wasn’t wrong,” he has previously said. However, his personal approaches differ from targets identified by Al Nassr’s sporting director Goran Vucevic.

Another leading European player, a long-time target of the competition, was offended when league officials initially approached the wrong intermediaries when attempting to sign him. He is still considering the Saudi offer.

The project was disappointed on Thursday when Messi announced he was signing for Inter Miami. He was the only player organisers slated as exceeding Ronaldo’s wages and the league had been confident their bid would succeed, particularly after previously securing Messi as a Saudi tourist board ambassador.

“Missing out on Messi is a big blow,” said Mohammed, an Al Hilal fan, after hearing the news. “I can’t name any player who would make up for missing out on him.”

Lifestyle concerns were thought to be a key factor in Messi’s decision, with the Argentina superstar listing family time as a reason for his move to Miami.

A number of other high-level players who have been in negotiations are also considering turning down the league, including Ilkay Gundogan, Eden Hazard, and Hugo Lloris. However, N’Golo Kante is close to joining Al Ittihad, while Roberto Firmino, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Luka Modric and Wilfried Zaha are also the subject of approaches.

It is notable that this is already probably the highest-profile league in a Muslim country — a further draw for players and one referenced by Benzema after he joined Al Ittihad. “Well because I am Muslim and it’s a Muslim country,” he said on Friday. “I’ve always wanted to live there. I’ve already been to Saudi Arabia and I feel good about it. Most importantly it’s a Muslim country, it’s beloved and it’s beautiful.”

Remember, though, this is not a one-way story of Saudi Arabia offering outsized contracts to ageing players to gazump European clubs. Some of the continent’s largest clubs have privately discussed using the Saudi league as a way to offload some of their highest-earning players.

Aside from the big name who has ticked all the boxes in his career and wants one last payday, Saudi Arabia is viewed more as a place for the top layer of clubs to offload high-profile players who have no market in Europe because of both their salaries and the trajectory of their careers – Nicolas Pepe, who has 12 months remaining on his £10million-a-year contract at Arsenal, could fit that description.

There are plenty of other names that could be thrown into the mix, too. In fact, Saudi Arabia being a potential “dumping ground” for Chelsea, who desperately need to trim their squad, was mentioned.

It is unclear what will happen with Pepe next – there is no suggestion at this stage he is going to the Middle East – and at 28 years old he would be younger than the typical profile of player who moves to Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, the feeling among Premier League clubs is that Saudi Arabia will struggle to entice players in that age category, which is something they will need to do if they are serious about building a domestic league that is credible and where there isn’t such a huge disparity in ability within squads.

“They also want players who are 25, 26, 27,” Diallo adds. “But right now, the players they are approaching are 30 and older. Those players have given everything to the world of football. Karim Benzema has won everything. The same with N’Golo Kante. But for some players, like Wilfried Zaha, money is not the issue – he wants to play in the Champions League.”

Could Zaha (or anyone else in his position) try to use the offer he has from Saudi Arabia (which ranges from £7.7million a year net to £15million a year net, depending on who you speak to) as leverage? Yes. Would Palace, or anyone else for that matter, significantly increase their own offer as a result? No.

Comparing the Premier League or the Champions League with the Saudi Pro League is like comparing apples and pears. As the agent said earlier, if it is money you want, Saudi Arabia is the place to be. But if football is your priority – and that is the case with Ilkay Gundogan at Manchester City – players will look elsewhere.

It is also not limited to players. Executives are expected to be parachuted in, while the nation is also expected to become a destination for more European managers. In recent years, Slaven Bilic, Rudi Garcia, and Nuno Espirito Santo have all managed in the league.

Rafa Benitez has received an approach, although he has not yet decided on his future amid interest from elsewhere in Europe. Another coach who has recently managed one of the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’ has also received an offer.

For the highest-profile names, like Ronaldo and Benzema, a life of luxury awaits. Their accommodation is pristine and the salaries mouthwatering. This is not necessarily the case for everyone else, as other foreign players who have spent time in Saudi Arabia tell stories of broken promises and contractual stand-offs.

FIFA’s website details a swathe of decisions from its Dispute Resolution Chamber and contract breaches are common. Over 50 labour disputes involving Saudi clubs have been heard inside the past 12 months and, as recently as March 8, there was the case of Lewis Grabban, the former Nottingham Forest captain, and Al Ahli, one of the four clubs taken over by PIF this week.

The veteran saw his contract terminated by Al Ahli within three months of joining on a one-year deal last August. Grabban said he did not receive $400,000 ($200,000 as a signing-on fee when joining last August and another $200,000 for two months of unpaid wages) and when he formally requested payment, he was informed of his release a fortnight later.

Grabban argued he had been due compensation totalling £2.2million and Al Ahli were eventually ordered to pay $500,000 in due wages on top of $700,000 of compensation for a breach of contract.

It was the fourth tribunal FIFA had chaired involving Al Ahli inside 18 months and, as a result, the club were to be “sanctioned with a ban from registering any new players for two entire and consecutive registration periods”.

There was nothing exceptional about Grabban’s case. Players across the league have seen wages go unpaid when injured and, in the worst cases, had contracts torn up and visas withheld. Even high-profile clubs, like Ronaldo’s Al Nassr, have been found to be in the wrong. In November, they were ordered to pay Brazilian midfielder Petros $2.5million after refusing to settle on the terms agreed in his terminated contract.

The issues have not gone unnoticed. FIFPRO, the international union representing 65,000 footballers, warned last summer that its members should not sign for clubs in Saudi Arabia. It was listed alongside repeat offenders such as Algeria, China, Romania and Turkey as nations to avoid, with “non-payment of salaries” seen to be “a recurring problem” in Saudi.

The Athletic has been told that public warning has done little to solve the issue, but the true depth of payment problems is unclear. There is no players’ union to represent natives to Saudi and, as such, no point of recourse for any locals going without pay.

As the Saudi ambitions grow broader and bolder, it is just one aspect of a football culture that will need to be refined.

Additional reporting: Stu James, Adam Crafton, Phil Buckingham, Guillermo Rai, David Ornstein, George Caulkin, Raphael Honigstein

(Top image: Getty Images. Design: Sam Richardson)



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