In the space of four days, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International Stadium hosted both the Italian Super Cup final (Milan vs. Inter, arguably the biggest derby in the world) and the Spanish Super Cup final (Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, aka El Clasico aka the biggest game in the club game). You’d think one of those matches was the main event, but no: as far as global hype and local attention were concerned, despite their combined 29 European Cups, they were merely the undercard for Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi as a local All-Star XI led by the Portuguese striker took on Paris Saint-Germain.
If you’re old-school about the sport, you may find this depressing. Two of the biggest rivalries involving four historic giants of the game with silverware at stake (more on this later) are overshadowed by an exhibition game involving one team that isn’t even a real team against a club whose illustrious history dates all the way back to … um … 1970. Of course, if you’re really old-school (and a bit contrarian), you may point out that the “Super Cup” — pitting the domestic champions against the domestic cup winners — is a less prestigious trophy and an artificial made-for-TV event conjured up in the 1980s to generate more content and revenue.
(But then, if you’re REALLY, REALLY, REALLY old-school — and REALLY, REALLY, REALLY contrarian — you’ll point out that a version of this existed in Spain in the 1940s and early 1950s, and that it’s a real trophy and not an artificial money spinner because if you did the league and cup double, you’d be automatically awarded the trophy without playing the game.)
Still, the point remains. For five days in January, Riyadh has drawn more footballing eyeballs than anywhere else ever, outside of Europe, South America and World Cups.
So how did we get here? The short, simple answer: money.
The Spanish FA earns a reported €30 million ($32.4m) for its Super Cup format — featuring a final four and three matches in total — which it splits among the clubs. The Italian FA’s single-game take is around €7.5m ($8.1m). As for Thursday’s friendly, French newspaper L’Equipe reported that PSG were getting €10m ($10.8m) to face the Riyadh All-Stars, but, of course, you’d want to factor in the cost of getting Ronaldo there too: he has a contract through 2025 worth $75m a year, plus commercial deals that could more than double his compensation.
How about the full answer?
It’s not hard to understand why the leagues would go for it: more guaranteed money than they would get at home, the opportunity for commercial relationships and to grow their brands in the Gulf … though to be fair, they spend so little there, it doesn’t really move the needle. Their domestic fans don’t particularly like it — there were only 400 Italian fans (according to Italian FA president Gabriele Gravina) among the 51,000 who watched the Italian Super Cup, most of them Gulf residents — but there are enough more important things in the sport to complain about, that it’s unlikely anyone will listen. (Possibly because, well, it’s the Super Cup, which generally ranks a distant fourth — out of four — among seasonal objectives.)
But what’s in it for the Saudis? Here it gets a bit more complex.
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Tempting as it may be to draw parallels with Qatar spending $200bn to organise the 2022 World Cup or Abu Dhabi investing heavily in Manchester City, it’s likely not merely a giant exercise in burnishing or raising the country’s profile or exercising soft power. When you’re the second-biggest oil producer and the sixth-biggest military spender on Earth, never mind “soft power” — you’ve already got “hard power.”
Nor are they naive enough to think that throwing money around will change the country’s reputation when it comes to human rights, which remains very poor. Not after being condemned by the United Nations for the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, and not when anyone with an internet connection can read reports like this.
And while some in the West lump all Gulf nations together, there’s a major difference just in sheer size. There are less than two million ethnic Emiratis, and roughly 300,000 ethnic Qataris: the rest of the people who live there are immigrants, whether they be billionaire Russian oligarchs, millionaire private equity guys or exploited construction workers. On the other hand, there are 36 million Saudis, which means they have serious heft when it comes to the economy. And unlike its Gulf neighbours, this is a big country: in fact, it’s the 12th biggest in the world.
In other words, while the driving force may be the same for the resource-rich Gulf nations — in terms of figuring out a plan for when the oil and gas run out — the opportunities available to Saudi Arabia are different and more diverse. Heck, the country is pretty explicit about this, and it’s laid out in its own Vision 2030 project. (They’re also reportedly preparing a joint-bid for the 2030 World Cup.) Some of it is so out there that it feels like a hoax — my favourite is “The Line,” a 100-mile long, three-mile high self-contained city — but some of it does feel more doable, like developing seaside family tourist resorts. Either way, when you’re sitting on a gigantic pile of money — and are rich in military and natural resources — you can do stuff like this.
Sports is a part of it not so much for the sake of it, but as a sector of the entertainment industry. Saudi Arabia has a long-term agreement with the folks who invented the term “sports entertainment,” World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), though rumours of a sale to the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which also controls Newcastle United, have been thus far denied. Via their PIF, Saudi Arabia have invested in LIV Golf (reportedly close to $2bn for the first two years), Formula One teams (Aston Martin) and computer gaming. Then, of course, there’s the Super Cups and, well, Ronaldo.
Whether all of this yields a return remains to be seen, but some Saudi observers suggest that with many investments at this stage, it’s not so much a case of building a new business as much as it is getting a deeper understanding of the sports and entertainment industry around the world. Once you have a piece of the pie, you’re on the inside and you know what’s up, whether it’s worth further investment (and, if so, how much) and whether it suits you. After all, as many point out, the rate of change in this country has been staggering and will likely only accelerate.
For example, 70% of the population is under the age of 30. Five years ago, Saudi women couldn’t drive or leave the house without a guardian or wearing an abaya (a long cloak or a robe covering the body). Today, there are young Saudi women who DJ at raves. In other words, you can’t really blame the Saudis for not overly committing to one path or another because they know their country — and their people — will likely look a whole lot different in a decade or two.
When it comes to European football’s attitude towards Saudi money, it’s a bit like Chinese money a few years ago or Russian money before that. Europe’s clubs are happy to take it because they’re running a business, but they’re under no illusions that it will ever grow into a credible threat to the European game. Maybe they’re right, but to the Saudis that doesn’t really matter. They’re learning and they’re doing so from the inside.