Saudi Arabia: The Next Superpower in the World of Soccer
Written by: Mark Aguilar 🇸🇻
Photo via Tasneem Alsultan/ The New York Times
On Dec. 30, 2022, Cristiano Ronaldo signed with Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr FC in one of the most unpredictable transfers in soccer history.
Although many had questions about how or why Ronaldo would move to Saudi Arabia to play out the twilight of his career, this was an orchestrated move backed by the Saudi government in their efforts to become a global superpower in the world of soccer.
Soon followed a migration of top talent around Europe, including the transfers of Neymar, Karim Benzema, and N'Golo Kanté.
Soccer fans wouldn’t begin hearing about Saudi Arabia’s ambition in the sports world until they started signing star players at the peak or tail ends of their careers. However, the nation had been building the groundwork for a while.
One could argue that this started in 1992 when the country held the first King Fahd Cup, a tournament named after the then king and prime minister of Saudi Arabia. This tournament was the blueprint for what became known as the Confederations Cup, a tournament adopted by FIFA and held in the country that had the World Cup a year before the start of that tournament.
Despite not having the best league or national team, they had the advantage of having almost unlimited money to support transfers of top players and managers into the nation.
Though the best players would usually set their sights on playing in Europe, where the best teams play with a long history of pride and heritage, the money offered to play in Saudi Arabia could be life-changing for players. Despite Europe offering lucrative deals, Saudi Arabia could easily double their offers, and with an added benefit—no income tax is required.
The operation of attracting the best players started with the signing of Ronaldo, who at the time fell out of favor at Manchester United and was actively looking for a new club. Being on extremely high wages, very few top clubs, if any, wanted to sign the veteran striker. It was Al-Nassr who stepped up and agreed to pay him €200M a year, one of the biggest ever contracts to any professional sports player.
Image via FanNation Futbol
During the summer transfer window in 2023, Saudi Arabia completed more transfers that rounded out their league with star-studded players.
Current Ballon d’Or holder, Karim Benzema, who was arguably still one of the best players at Real Madrid was signed by Al-Ittihad Club. Neymar followed suit joining Al Hilal SFC, despite still being considered one of the best wingers in the world at PSG. Other players that European clubs wanted include Roberto Firmino, Ruben Neves, Aleksandar Mitrović, Fabinho, Aymeric Laporte, Jota, and Gabri Veiga, who all joined Saudi clubs in the summer.
Some of these players have been criticized for moving to the Saudi league.
Gabri Veiga, 21, had a breakthrough season in Celta de Vigo in La Liga during the 2022/2023 season. Wanted by top clubs and with a promising career, Veiga chose to play in an inferior league over European competition. Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos blasted Veiga on the move, calling it embarrassing.
The Saudi Pro League is a part of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), leading these players to opt out of competing in the more prestigious competitions, like the UEFA Champions League.
This isn’t stopping the influx of players, and Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem like they’ll stop anytime soon as they have one final goal in mind: The FIFA World Cup.
Despite having a bid to host the tournament in 2030, they lost to a joint bid between Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. However, because of FIFA’s rules in rotating the host continents, Saudi Arabia has become the clear favorite to host the 2034 edition.
FIFA doesn’t allow a federation to host a World Cup until after two cycles, eliminating North America as they’re hosting in 2026 and Europe, South America, and Africa as they’re hosting in 2030. With this, the only two continents that can host in 2034 are Asia and Oceania.
Unless Australia and New Zealand mount a campaign to host, it’s all but confirmed that Saudi Arabia will be hosting the biggest soccer tournament in their kingdom in 2034.
While Saudi Arabia sees these investments as a way to bring more tourism into the country and make others see them as a global power, many see it as ‘sports washing’ – covering up the inhumane practices the kingdom has done with popular sporting events. Players who decide to play there also come under questioning for their morality, knowing all the atrocities that Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing.
Time will tell whether or not these investments will pay off and cement Saudi Arabia as an attractive country for athletes to compete in.