RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When fans arrived at the King Fahd International Stadium to watch the Italian Super Cup between Milan and Inter last week, they were each handed an LED wristband that was programmed to flash red or blue (the colours of the two teams) whenever a goal went in. Each time Inter scored in their 3-0 win, the wristbands turned the stadium into a wave of bouncing blue lights — an impressive spectacle on an otherwise dark and cold desert night. The rights to stage the one game cost $8 million alone, but there’s no expense spared when Saudi Arabia puts on a show.
For over a week, the eyes of the soccer world were fixed on Saudi Arabia, but its hope is to remain the centre of attention for much longer.
On Jan. 15, the capital Riyadh staged the Spanish Supercopa between Barcelona and Real Madrid. On Jan. 18, it was the Italian version featuring Milan and Inter, two of Serie A’s biggest teams. Less than 24 hours later they had Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo in a “G.O.A.T.s in the Gulf” exhibition game between Paris Saint-Germain and a Riyadh All-Star XI and then, to top it off, Ronaldo’s debut for Al Nassr in their own Saudi Pro League.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
In the space of seven days, Saudi fans were treated to two of the biggest club games in European soccer, a head-to-head between two of the greatest players in history and then a league match featuring Ronaldo, one of the most famous people on the planet, in their country.
The Middle East isn’t shy when it comes to bold statements of intent, but even by its standards it was a big week. The future, though, could be even more seismic.
Answers to questions about why this is happening in Saudi Arabia depend on who you ask. Saudi soccer authorities insist it’s about growing the game in their soccer-mad country. Amnesty International say the aim is “sportswashing” — the term used to describe authoritarian regimes using sports to alter their image abroad and distract from poor records on human rights.
Another theory is that it’s all building towards a bid, as yet unannounced, to host the World Cup in 2030. (There’s also the ambitious, state-run project called Vision 2030, which is built around “a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation” to help “the Kingdom’s long-term economic success.”) The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, although there’s one common denominator running through it all — money, and lots of it. Rich in oil, Saudi Arabia has access to wealth so massive that almost nothing is off the table.
In 2022, the revenue reported by Aramco, the Saudi government-owned oil firm, was more than $550bn, with estimated profits of $700m every day. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) — among the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world — is valued in excess of $620bn.
Money talks and Saudi Arabia have enough to dominate most conversations.
Saudi investment in sport — a strategic aim since 2016 under Vision 2030, which has brought about sweeping social and economic change — extends far beyond soccer. Heavyweight boxing title fights involving Anthony Joshua have been staged in Diriyah in 2019 and Jeddah in 2022, while PIF has also backed the controversial LIV Golf tour, the first “season” of which is reported to have cost close to $800m, with another billion projected in Year 2.
There is also a 10-year, $650m deal to host Formula One races and an agreement to host two WWE events every year for the next decade. There has been speculation in the region that PIF could buy out both F1, worth more than $20bn, and WWE, worth around $6.5bn, in full. The sums are vast, but they’re a drop in the ocean.
Conversations have also taken place with officials from MLB and the NBA — both the context and contents of those talks remain as yet undisclosed — and in December, the NBA’s board of governors voted to approve investments from sovereign wealth funds. Interest in the NFL is also growing on the back of Saudi state-owned media company Saudi Sports Company reaching a three-year deal for rights in 2021.
In soccer, PIF fronted an ownership group that completed a $370m takeover of Premier League team Newcastle United in 2021, and there is enthusiastic government support for private sector bids for Manchester United and Liverpool, as both big clubs are currently up for sale. Ronaldo was attracted to the Saudi Pro League by a contract worth $200m a year, making him the highest-paid athlete in history. The deal to host the Spanish Super Cup costs $40m annually, while the latest offer to host the Italian Supercoppa until 2029 is worth a reported $138m.
Soccer remains the No. 1 sport in Saudi Arabia — the government estimates that 80% of its 35 million people play or follow it in some way — and the ambition is to have a league and a national team to match. (Former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook has recently been announced as the league’s new CEO, which will help their global push.) There’s been talk that Messi could be the next global icon tempted to the Saudi Pro League (SPL) with the idea that if Ronaldo and Messi are there, other star names will follow.
The creation of LIV Golf has also shown that Saudi Arabia is not afraid of upsetting the established order. Big names like Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson and reigning Open champion Cam Smith have turned their back on the PGA Tour to play on the new, but highly lucrative, circuit — Johnson, Mickelson and Smith are reported to be earning a combined $500m in guaranteed contracts alone — and it raises questions about whether the SPL could ever compete with the English Premier League when it comes to signing the world’s best players at the peak of their careers.
“The Saudi league is moving towards being a global, international league that many people will follow,” Ibrahim al-Kassim, general secretary of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation, told ESPN. “Football in Saudi Arabia is moving at a very quick pace but in football you need time. You need to build up and the same thing applies to the clubs. The league has improved a lot and we are continuing in that direction until one day we are competing with European clubs.”
There are cautionary tales from recent years regarding such supercharged investment. At one time, the Chinese Super League made waves by suddenly emerging as a potential destination for top players, with Brazilian forward Oscar convinced to leave Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG by a contract worth nearly $500,000 per week in an $82m deal. Others had their heads turned by the money on offer — China spent more on transfers in the 2017 January window than Premier League teams — but the spike in investment was short-lived after the Chinese government clamped down on the investment and deals for Europe’s top talent dried up.
In contrast, the Saudi government is fuelling the growth of their domestic league. They are making no secret about their long-term ambitions and there’s already talk in the country that elite coaches Thomas Tuchel (formerly of Borussia Dortmund, PSG and Chelsea) and Mauricio Pochettino (of Spurs fame) could soon be taking jobs in the domestic league.
“We’ve all seen the historical international event of Cristiano’s move to the Saudi Pro League, which will impact the development of academies and talents,” said Hammad Albalawi, general manager of strategic planning and investments at the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Sport. “We are very ambitious. We’re very ambitious in the development of the league as well as the talents and academies.
“We will be seeing a lot of growth in Saudi Arabian football in the coming years.”
Messi, meanwhile, is expected to extend his contract with Paris Saint-Germain, but the speculation linking him with a move to join Ronaldo won’t go away. He’s already an ambassador for Saudi tourism having signed a multimillion-dollar deal in May, which could cause conflict in the future because Argentina are also interested in hosting the World Cup in 2030. “If you ask me about Messi coming to Saudi Arabia, who would not love to see Messi playing in their country?” said al-Kassim.
“Everyone would love to see Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi again playing in the same league. Now Cristiano Ronaldo is here, that will also open the door for maybe so many other players who can join the league. I would love to see Messi here.”
It’s the same answer when talk turns to the World Cup. Qatar set the precedent for a winter tournament to avoid the desert heat and while there has been no confirmation of a joint Saudi Arabia bid with Greece and Egypt, the view in Saudi Arabia is in line with its attitude about most things concerning sport: Why not?
“We have hosted so many competitions in the past and we are the lone bidder for the Asian Cup in 2027,” said al-Kassim. “Speaking about the World Cup specifically, name one nation that would not love to host the World Cup one day. Everyone would love to host the World Cup one day but nothing is announced so far and our main focus is on the Asian Cup in 2027.”
The groundwork for a World Cup bid has already been laid. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has met FIFA boss Gianni Infantino on a number of occasions. They were pictured together at Joshua’s boxing bout with Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah in 2022 and at the World Cup opening ceremony in Qatar in November.
On a trip to Saudi Arabia in January 2021, Infantino stressed the importance of developing women’s soccer in the country. By August, a Saudi Arabia women’s national team had been formed and the following February, the team played their first matches. A few months later in October 2022, Infantino, on another trip to Riyadh, made a point of praising the rapid progress that had been made.
Female participation in sport — up 150% since 2016, according to government figures — is a success story in a country where women weren’t allowed to drive until 2018 and it always helps to keep FIFA happy when bids go in for the big tournaments. There has also been an effort to open up the country and in 2017, Riyadh hosted the first public live music concert in 25 years. A tourist visa programme was launched in 2019 and a Six Flags theme park is due to open in 2023. Among Riyadh’s mosques, you’ll even find places such as Victoria’s Secret and Chuck E. Cheese.
If Saudi Arabia wins the right to host the World Cup in 2030, the Saudi Football Association hopes its national team might be competing as one the best in the world, with a target of being inside the top 20 FIFA-ranked nations by 2034. They are currently 49th and while the Falcons didn’t make it out of their group in Qatar, they did inflict the only defeat on eventual winners Argentina. It’s not only one of the World Cup’s greatest upsets, but it has also been used as part of the argument by Saudis that all this is about developing Saudi soccer.
“Do you think that if it was sportswashing, we would have won against Argentina at the World Cup? No.” says al-Kassim. “The purpose is the development of football in Saudi Arabia. Winning against Argentina at the World Cup is the starting signal for that development and it’s a signal that Saudi football is moving in the right direction.”
The direction of Saudi soccer, and sport in general, is not in question — it’s the motive, and where this is all leading that’s up for debate. Ronaldo’s arrival and the World Cup in 2030 might only be the start.