When a Saudi Arabian football club, Al-Hilal, offered a bid of €300 million for footballer Kylian Mbappe, it was only the latest attempt by the oil-rich nation to disrupt the European-dominated world of club football. Al-Hilal’s offer for the French World Cup-winning star (2018), who wants to leave his current employer Paris Saint-Germain football club, would have been a record in transfer fee after PSG paid Barcelona €222m for Neymar in 2017 – Mbappe has reportedly rejected the offer.
The Saudi club had also offered Lionel Messi over €350m to join from PSG, but the Argentinian opted to move to Inter Miami in America’s Major League Soccer (MLS) in June 2023. Messi and his former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets made their debuts for the Miami team on July 25. However, Messi’s long-time rival Cristiano Ronaldo joined Saudi’s Al Nassr in January as the country continues to attract top-notch players, including Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, who left Real Madrid and Chelsea, respectively, to join Al Ittihad.
While Messi, 36, and Ronaldo, 38, are in the autumn of their careers and thereby more inclined to follow monetary benefits rather than anything that props their footballing future, Mbappe, at 24, is at the peak of his prowess. If instead of another European club, he had moved to Saudi, even if for a possible one -year, €200 million contract, it would have been a big moral win for Saudi Arabia—and a blow to the traditional set up of world football.
Al-Hilal is one among four teams in the country—besides Al Nassr, Jeddah-based Al Ittihad and Al Ahli—which are majority owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund managed by the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The PIF already owns English Premier League football team Newcastle United.
The PIF’s investment in sport, it is claimed, is part of the country’s strategy to diversify its economy from finite oil reserves. The policy is to use sport as a means to clean up the country’s image amid questions from developed nations over its human rights records, persecution of political activists and absence of gender equality.
The regime has already made some impressive forays into the world of sport, across disciplines. Two British cyclists, Adam Yates who beat twin Simon to win the first stage of the Tour de France in early July, ride respectively for UAE Emirates team and team Jayco AlUla (AlUla is an ancient city and home to a world heritage site in Saudi Arabia). Former Liverpool and England footballer Steven Gerrard is taking up a position to manage Al Ettifaq, at an income of $10 million a season. He will be joined there by 33-year-old Jordan Henderson, who will leave Liverpool to play for the Arabian club.
Last December, USA’s National Basketball Association (NBA) changed its rules to allow sovereign wealth funds to buy minority stakes in its teams up to 20 percent, The Athletic reported. While NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that no Saudi-backed fund has tried to invest in a team, others are now entering the marketplace.
The tennis world has been split on the issue of possible Saudi investments, with some players like Nick Kyrgios welcoming the interest enthusiastically, others like Andy Murray undecided and number one ranked players Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek agreeable to playing there.
“That’s a politically charged question,” former player-turned-ESPN commentator John McEnroe said, when asked about Saudi investments in tennis. “It looked like the PGA were hypocrites (to merge with them) after fighting them. Our government does business with them through hedge funds, etc. Ronaldo is getting paid a few hundred million a year (for playing there). They have boxing fights…
“But I would not encourage it, the Saudi thing. I am not surprised tennis is in the mix. That’s not something we should be pursuing but it’s not in my hands,” McEnroe said before the start of this year’s Wimbledon.
The move that set the cat among pigeons came in 2021, when PIF set up LIV Golf, a rival tour to the established PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) Tour. Last year, the PGA declared that players who move to LIV would be barred from playing in the PGA Tour. Several key players, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed, many of them in the middle or later stages of their careers, made the switch to the LIV Series.
But on June 6, 2023, the PGA Tour and LIV announced the creation of a new entity that would combine their assets, a merger of sorts, which McEnroe refers to. While the two tours would be separate for this year, the details of this merger are not clear, pending approvals.
Rory McIlroy, one of the most influential PGA Tour players, part of the Tour’s policy board and a staunch opponent of LIV when it was introduced, said he was reluctantly in favour of the agreement. McIlroy said he had “come to terms” with Saudi money in golf, the New York Times reported. “Honestly, I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that this is, you know, this is what’s going to happen,” the paper quoted him as saying.
McIlroy’s reluctant acceptance points to what is turning out to be an inevitable force in world sport, one that’s bending sporting governing bodies through the sheer might of its spending power. While the world’s biggest sport stars, in golf, football, and tennis, make millions of dollars in prize money and endorsement, they don’t seem immune to the lure of more riches.
If Mbappe seems still too young to consider sacrificing a year of his career to a lesser league in Saudi Arabia, Portuguese winger Jota doesn’t think so. The 24-year-old left Celtic in Scotland for Ittihad in Jeddah, to join Benzema and Kante. The 29-year-old Open winner Cameron Smith had done the same by joining LIV last August, becoming the highest ranked player at No.2 to make the switch.
There is a shift in the world order of some sport, from Europe and the Americas, to the Middle-East. The men’s football World Cup last year was held in Qatar, amid protests by human rights activists. But the event was held successfully and despite what detractors would say, sport and its administrators are merely following the money.