Saudi Arabia's bid to become a global force in football
Saudi Arabia has always been a regional football powerhouse, with World Cup appearances and Asian titles to its name, but now the country has plans to become a global force - sooner rather than later.
If successful, the local football landscape in West Asia and North Africa is going to have to adapt to this new reality.
At the end of December, Cristiano Ronaldo signed for Al-Nassr to put the Riyadh team in the headlines, from Miami to Mumbai and Melbourne.
The megastar and his team finished second in the league which ended on 31 May. Al-Ittihad were deserved champions and have already made another massive signing in persuading current Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema to leave Real Madrid.
"Saudi Arabia has always been a regional football powerhouse but now the country has plans to become a global force - sooner rather than later"
More are on their way. Lionel Messi, the player of the century so far along with Ronaldo, has been heavily linked to Al-Hilal as have former Barcelona team-mates such as Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. There will be more. With Ronaldo, and now Benzema making the move, any player could.
This level of stardom and talent either signing or being linked is unprecedented in Asian and African football. Chinese Super League clubs splashed huge amounts of cash in the previous decade and it was the biggest spending league in the world in the winter transfer window of 2016-17.
Even the likes of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka did not, however, have the profile of Benzema and especially Ronaldo – the most popular person on the social media platform Instagram, with around 590 million followers.
It all means that Al-Nassr shirts are now seen around the world. The league has, according to reports, sold broadcasting rights to 36 overseas territories. None of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours can compete with that.
In the west of Asia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have often sought to attract talent to their leagues. The likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Romario, and Pep Guardiola signed for Qatari clubs in the first decade of this century with varying degrees of success, but with nothing like the off-field impact of Ronaldo.
The United Arab Emirates have had their moments, especially with Diego Maradona taking over coaching duties at Al-Wasl from 2011 to 2012, but in terms of players, there is little to match what is going on in Saudi Arabia at the moment.
These two leagues have been going through something of a downturn of late in terms of performances in continental competitions and quality at home and are going to be operating in the ever-growing shadow of their bigger neighbour if present trends continue.
Saudi Arabia has a large and deep football foundation on which to build. Al-Ittihad, for example, had an average attendance of 40,000 last season. Around 260,000 people watched Qatari league games last season, a tenth of the Saudi Arabian total.
A little further to the west and traditional Arab powers such as Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria are also going to have to adjust to the new regime in Riyadh.
While the very top players from North Africa can be found at the big European clubs, such as Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, Riyad Mahrez at Manchester City, and Achraf Hakimi at Paris Saint-Germain, a growing number of their international team-mates can already be found in Saudi Arabia.
"A few months ago the idea of Ronaldo and Messi playing in Jeddah and Riyadh every week would not have been taken seriously. In football, change can come quickly"
Egyptian internationals Ahmed Hegazi and Tarek Ahmed played key roles in Al-Ittihad’s title win. Algerian international goalkeeper Moustapha Zeghba is with Damac while Sofiane Bendebka plays for Al-Fateh. Al-Wehda’s Munir Mohamedi is a Moroccan international.
Egyptian giants Al-Ahly and Zamalek and the likes of Wydad AC of Morocco and Esperance de Tunis have long and proud histories with huge fan bases but simply can’t compete financially with their rivals to the east. Saudi Arabia’s league is on the way to becoming the representative Arab football league, attracting more and more of the best talent in the region.
And then there is Iran, an Asian powerhouse to rival Saudi Arabia in terms of on-pitch talent. Yet the Iranian league has severe financial issues, exacerbated by US-led international sanctions. In short, there is just no money in Iranian football.
If the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh leads to greater football connections then Iranian players and clubs alike will welcome higher salaries and substantial transfer fees.
Fans may have more mixed feelings. Already, Mehdi Taremi, the country’s number one player and a star with FC Porto in Portugal has been linked with a move to Saudi Arabia. The sight of the talismanic Taremi swapping a historic European club for one in Riyadh or Jeddah would likely not go down well with fans in the country.
Off pitch developments
Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and other leagues in Asia have wrestled with the issue of privatising football clubs in recent years with mixed results. On Monday, Saudi Arabia moved ahead with their plans to build private sporting entities. If successful, this could be a real game-changer.
The government has earmarked the process as necessary if the league can achieve its aim of becoming one of the top ten in the world. The best European competitions are full of privately-owned clubs.
“The privatisation and ownership transfer of clubs aims to accelerate progress in a variety of sports across the Kingdom, further growing participation, providing cutting edge facilities, increasing competition and nurturing future champions,” the Saudi Press Agency announced.
"If Saudi Arabia can continue to sign some of the biggest stars in the world while pushing through major changes off the pitch, then the league is going to become the undisputed centre of the regional football world, for better or for worse"
The move, it was explained, has numerous aims: to foster investment in sports, help clubs become more professional and sustainable, and improve infrastructure. Already, the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has taken 75 percent ownership of the traditional big four: Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Ahli.
The journey will be long but necessary as the league seeks to build revenues from $120 million a year at present to $480 million by 2030. It is all about building a sustainable business model.
It is easier said than done, but a few months ago the idea of Ronaldo and Messi playing in Jeddah and Riyadh every week would not have been taken seriously. In football, change can come quickly.
If Saudi Arabia can continue to sign some of the biggest stars in the world while pushing through major changes off the pitch, then the league is going to become the undisputed centre of the regional football world, for better or for worse.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden