how Saudi Arabia has shaped an attractive championship in a few months

The opening of the 2023-2024 Saudi Pro League, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on August 7, 2023.

The football community will no doubt remember the summer of 2023. Friday 1er September at 11 p.m., most of the transfer markets of the major European championships will close their doors after two months of sales, purchases, loans and sometimes soap operas with implausible scenarios. Among them, that of Saudi Arabia, which gave this transfer window the air of burglary. The Roshn Saudi League (RSL), new showcase of the soft power of the Kingdomshowed a boundless appetite and, with few exceptions, the desert sirens seemed irresistible.

How did the Saudi clubs finance such a raid?

The answer to this question is in three letters: PIF, for Public Investment Fund (Public Investment Fund). This windfall of money is estimated at more than 700 billion euros by the Global Sovereign Wealth Funds institute. It is the reservoir that allows the Crown Prince, Mohammed Ben Salman, to carry out the “Vision 2030” project, a major plan for economic diversification and improvement of the country’s image in the world while the kingdom is regularly singled out human rights issues.

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It was from this same sovereign wealth fund that Saudi Arabia bought the English club Newcastle in the fall of 2021. At the beginning of June 2023, the PIF made another major acquisition which was the starting point of this historic transfer window: the purchase of 75% of the shares of four clubs in the Saudi first division. Then transformed into companies endowed with almost unlimited means, these four locomotives embarked on the construction of their workforce at high speed by signing more than twenty players evolving so far in Europe.

What are the four clubs that animated the transfer window?

Two of these lucky ones are based in Riyadh: Al-Nr, Where has Cristiano Ronaldo evolved since the start of the year?, and Al-Hilal, Neymar’s new home. The other two come from Jeddah, a coastal city near Mecca: Al-Ittihad, home of the Ballon d’Or 2022 Karim Benzemaand Al-Ahli, who offered himself, among others, the Brazilian Roberto Firmino and the Algerian Riyad Mahrez.

Historical clubs in the country, these four teams have won 39 of the 48 championship titles distributed since the creation of the national championship in 1974. It is difficult to imagine that the hegemony will end this season given the luxurious recruitment operated: Sadio Mané, second in the last Ballon d’Or, joined Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nr. The French N’Golo Kanté (Al-Ittihad) and the former Ivorian captain of RC Lens Seko Fofana (Al-Nr) have also joined the ranks of these squads.

With the end of the European transfer window, will departures stop?

If the end of the transfer market in the major championships of the Old Continent means that the European teams can no longer buy, they can always sell because not all the championships close their transfer window at the same time. Saudi Arabia has chosen to play extra time and allows its clubs to continue shopping until September 20.

Worried at the idea of ​​seeing a player leave without being able to replace him, Jürgen Klopp, the German coach of Liverpool, estimated at the beginning of August that this discrepancy was “the worst thing” and urged the European and international authorities to ” find solutions “.

However, it is not said that the Saudi armadas will register other reinforcements by September 20. The championship regulations impose a limit of eight foreign players per team and most have already reached it, in particular the four clubs acquired by the PIF. Ryad Boudebouz, former resident of Ligue 1 (Montpellier, Saint-Etienne), for example, is pushed towards the exit to make room for freshly arrived players. Unless they sell, Saudi enthusiasm will have to be curbed.

What value and what future for the Saudi championship?

Is an avalanche of stars enough to make a championship competitive? Even if the exodus to Saudi Arabia seems to be taking on an unprecedented scale and speed, international football is not lacking in perspective on the issue. Thomas Tuchel, former coach of PSG, today on the bench of Bayern Munich, sees the same “gold rush than in China when it launched its League”.

In the 2010s, the Chinese Super League, in his attempt to become the new Eldorado, had grabbed the Brazilians Hulk and Oscar or even the Ivorian legend Didier Drogba. All for a less shiny result. Without convincing sporting results on the continental level and unable to maintain such levels of investment over the long term, several clubs, including the most famous of them, the Guangzhou Evergrande of Canton, have gradually fallen into oblivion. .

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The RSL is she going to meet the same fate? At least three elements suggest that the story is likely to be different. First, the state’s desire to put Saudi football at the heart of the country’s influence. Ultimately, the Kingdom would like to imitate its Qatari neighbor and host a World Cuppossibly in 2034.

Then, the Saudi championship – unlike that of Qatar or China in their time – does not build from scratch and was already a benchmark for football on its continent. Al-Hilal is for example the most successful club in the Asian Champions League with four coronations, the last of which was won in 2021.

Finally, because Saudi Arabia does not seem to be building a championship for “pre-retirees”. This summer, the average age of players recruited by the four clubs supported by the PIF from the European championships is 29, the peak of a career for a footballer. A figure that debunks preconceived ideas and gives serious arguments to the global ambitions of Saudi football.

Saudi Arabia has in any case already succeeded where China, the United States and the other non-European championships have failed: broadcasting. In France, Canal+ will offer three meetings per day for the next two seasons. The DAZN streaming site will take care of this for England, Germany and Austria. Enough to impose the RSL a little more as a championship that counts in Europe.

Baptist Leduc

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