The 2-1 upset over eventual champions Argentina at the World Cup was undoubtedly the greatest day in Saudi Arabian football. Only for it to be topped less than a month later, after Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the most famous footballers on the planet, confirmed his move to Riyadh-based Al-Nassr in the Saudi Pro League.
For many fans and former pros within the sport, the move has been seen as the end of his career at the top level. But Ronaldo’s extraordinary U-turn, following a combative television interview in November in which he criticised former club Manchester United for being a “marketing club” that lacks ambition, is telling of how powerful the country’s spending power can be for its ambitions in football.
Despite the grandstanding on his commitment to competitive football, Ronaldo, 37, was on his way to Saudi Arabia six weeks later. There have been different reasons thrown around for Ronaldo’s move by him and the club. To experience the game in Asia, to build the Saudi Arabian football project, to make Al-Nassr champions again.
These explanations have not been enough to suggest that he moved there for anything but money – with reports suggesting a $200 million salary that will make him the highest-paid player in the sport’s history. What he can do for Saudi Arabia, however, goes beyond financial return.
Ronaldo will legitimise Saudi Arabian football like few others can. Additionally, he will bring media attention, global interest, and a higher viewership of their league on a scale that few others can. Most importantly, he will play an ambassadorial role in the country’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
Despite all the criticism Qatar received over attempting to ‘sportswash’ its human rights record, it was evidently successful in promoting the country on a global scale.
The final between Argentina and France was a particular feather in their cap. The showpiece match was built as a showdown between Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, both of whom ply their trade at Paris Saint-Germain, a club purchased by the Qatari establishment a few years after securing the right to host the World Cup.
Saudi Arabia, in effect, have followed in their footsteps. Seeing what having a presence in football could do for Qatar, they jumped at the chance to lead a consortium – through the Public Investment Fund (PIF) governed by the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – and purchased English Premier League club Newcastle United.
In a short period, the takeover has transformed the club. They hired promising young coach Eddie Howe who instituted a progressive style of football, spent £210 million on effective player transfers rather than eye-catching ones, hired a new director of football and chief executive, and turned the club’s women’s team professional.
Newcastle are now a team beloved by the neutrals, and the talk of the town among the influential former pros-turned-pundits in English football. Following their 0-0 draw against Arsenal on Tuesday, they are third in the Premier League table after nearly half the season. The Saudi takeover has taken a relegation-threatened club to contenders for European football.
By controlling the excesses, as seen by PSG’s lust for stars in the past, the Saudi Arabian consortium learned from Qatar’s mistakes, making their new team far more likeable. They are likely to do the same with their own bid for the 2030 World Cup.
Despite already having more infrastructure in place than Qatar did, their World Cup bid – yet to be launched but expected soon – will be alongside Greece and Egypt – two countries with substantial footballing heritage and following. The infrastructural challenges will be shared, but so will the limelight and criticism that marred the event in Qatar this year.
Learning from LIV
Saudi investments in sports have been rather hit-and-miss so far. The events they have hosted, from boxing bouts to F1 races, have been one-offs in the annual calendar, not enough to get them the eyeballs they are trying to buy. Their greatest financial investment, $2 billion, to fund the opening of the LIV Invitational golf series, to rival the PGA Tour, remains at a crossroads.
LIV Golf did the job it intended to do in its first year, disrupting golf’s status quo, using blank cheques to sign some of its top players, and getting the attention it needed as an outlier. With a standoff with the PGA Tour resulting in court cases, inability to get recognised by the professional rankings, and lack of a broadcasting deal, however, there is uncertainty over what happens next.
Records accessed by The New York Times revealed that management consulting firm McKinsey & Company had been hired ahead of the investment. According to The Times, the firm more or less admitted that expecting substantial financial returns from their investment was unrealistic, but instead, the focus was on the optics, to repair Saudi Arabia’s reputation internationally.
McKinsey pointed out that in order for the tour to be a real success, it would need participation from three of the sport’s most recognisable faces – Tiger Woods, Rory Mcllroy, and Phil Mickelson – but both Woods (who turned down an offer upwards of $700 million according to LIV executive Greg Norman) and Mcllroy have refused to join.
In football, they have had no problem luring the sport’s biggest stars.
In addition to Ronaldo, Messi has been signed on as a tourism ambassador for the country, who will likely help in their World Cup bid. Perplexingly, both Portugal and Argentina are also involved in bids to host the showpiece event, challenging allegiance of both superstars to their countries or their bankrollers.
Whether their investments in golf and other sports come to fruition or not, with both Ronaldo and Newcastle, Saudi Arabia’s presence in elite football has already been felt. If they succeed in bringing the World Cup to the country, they can take over the reins from Qatar as football’s ultimate outside power.