W Power 2024

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Middle Eastern countries are eyeing star footballers. Here's why

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been making headlines with their investments in European football. The players, most of whom are past their prime, are lapping up these offers for the big bucks

Naini Thaker
Published: Jun 15, 2023 12:15:04 PM IST
Updated: Jun 15, 2023 04:01:12 PM IST

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Middle Eastern countries are eyeing star footballers. Here's why35 year-old French soccer star, Karim Benzema left Real Madrid and signed a three-year contract with Al-Ittihad; Image: Stringer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Manchester United might reportedly have a new owner: Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani.

As per reports, Al-Ahli has submitted an official contract bid to Riyad Mahrez and negotiations are underway on player side. Similarly, footballer Romelu Lukaku has received a formal offer from Saudi Arabia’s football club Al-Hilal for a two-season contract worth €50 million.

Two star footballers—Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema—are expected to play for the Saudi Pro League in the upcoming season post their transfers.

These are some big updates in the world of football. Clearly, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been in the limelight since the beginning of this transfer season. How are these trends likely to affect Premier League football clubs, the players and most importantly, the sport. Forbes India explains:

Cristiano Ronaldo has been paving the way for high-profile footballers to play in the Middle East after he signed a deal with Al-Nassr until 2025 in December. According to AFP, he is set to receive the biggest salary in the history of the game: £177 million ($215 million) per year. In June, French football player Karim Benzema left Real Madrid and signed a three-year contract with football club Al-Ittihad. He is expected to earn a huge salary of €200 million per season. Chelsea's N'Golo Kante has reportedly completed his medical and is all set to sign a two-year contract for €100 million per season with Al-Ittihad.

The European club football season is almost over, and teams are looking to make changes to their squads. But as this transfer season begins, Middle Eastern countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, seem to be all geared up to make offers to bag star players. Lukaku has received an offer from Al-Hilal, for a two-season contract worth €50 million. Al-Hilal is also reportedly interested in signing Neymar Jr, as he plans to move from Paris Saint-Germain (PSG). Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets are among the players clubs in Saudi Arabia are eyeing. Even Lionel Messi was being pursued by Al-Hilal. But eventually, the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner decided to join David Beckham’s US club Inter Miami, once his contact with PSG ends.

Why are players considering these offers? Simply put, the money. Saudi Pro League clubs have no restrictions when it comes to spending. This means clubs can lure players with much higher salaries. “A lot of the players—be it Ronaldo or Benzema—are almost past their prime. So, for most of them, it’s about getting that one last paycheck. They’ve had almost a two-decade-long career in European football and now they are moving elsewhere. This was also the case in the 90s, when we saw Gary Lineker move to Japan’s Nagoya Grampus to popularise the J League,” explains Ayon Sengupta, editor, Sportstar. He adds, "Traditional clubs are struggling to stay relevant in the transfer market, which has seen a manifold rise because of the money spent by clubs backed by arms of nation states like PSG (Qatar), Manchester City (Abu Dhabi). Probably that pushed clubs to fall for the allure of the European Super league."

Keeping all the glamour and money aside, leading players' union FIFPro—which represents 65,000 footballers across the world—has recently apprised players to not sign up with the Saudi Pro League. Reason? As per reports, the ongoing problems regarding unpaid wages and lack of union protection.

Also read: Football: Technology, rules, tactics, migration and human agency of the Beautiful Game

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Middle Eastern countries are eyeing star footballers. Here's why

Investing in clubs and sponsorships

On June 13, Manchester United’s shares rose by 30 percent after the Qatari media reported that Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani might succeed in his takeover bid. Forbes India could not verify this news independently. But reports confirm that Sheikh Jassim has submitted a final offer on June 7, for $6.3 billion, for the total control of Manchester United, owned by the Glazer family currently. The club’s total revenue in 2022 was €688.6 million, and ranks number 4 on Deloitte Football Money League 2023.

PSG President Nasser Al-Khelaifi was rumoured to have played a significant role in talks over the purchase of Manchester United by Qatari royal Sheikh Jassim. However, a few days ago, Al-Khelaifi clarified that he is not involved with the potential Qatari bid.

In June 2011, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, bought 70 percent of PSG through Qatar Sports Investments (QSI). Interestingly, news reports from February suggest that the Emir was also keen to buy Manchester United. As per UEFA rules, the same owner cannot own two clubs competing with each other, which was a potential obstacle.

As for Saudi Arabia, most of the money invested in the Saudi Pro League and clubs has come from the country’s sovereign wealth fund—Public Investment Fund (PIF)—chaired by the country’s leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In October 2021, PIF acquired English Premier League club Newcastle United for £305 million. They also have 75 percent control of Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.

It is only recently that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been making headlines with their investments in European football. Back in 2008, UAE had made the first move when Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, UAE vice president, deputy prime minister and minister of the presidential court, bought Manchester City. According to the Deloitte Football Money League 2023 list, Manchester City clocked in revenue of €731 million and topped the list, second straight year. Another early mover was Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Bin Abdullah Al Ahmed Al Thani, member of the Qatari royal family, who bought Malaga FC back in 2010. In 2018, Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris acquired football club Aston Villa.

The total revenue for the top 20 revenue-generating clubs in 2021-22 stood at €9.2 billion, an increase of 13 percent compared to the €8.2 billion reported by the Money League clubs of 2020-21. Evidently, there is big money to earn.

At the other end, there is an upside for the clubs as well. For instance, PSG is one of the most valuable football clubs thanks to its extremely wealthy owners. They managed to get high-profile players such as Zlatan Ibrahimović, Neymar, Kylian Mbappé in addition to sponsorship deals with brands like Qatar Tourism Authority, Nike, Air Jordan, Accor and Qatar Airways.

Middle Eastern brands have always been big on sponsorship deals for football clubs. Most recently, Turkish Airlines was the official sponsor of the UEFA Champions League; Newcastle United has a shirt sponsor agreement with a Middle Eastern company and airline company Emirates has sponsorship deals with AC Milan and Real Madrid.

Also read: AC Milan is eager to contribute to the growth of Indian football

Apart from the investments in football clubs and sponsorship deals, Sengupta reckons, "the bigger influence of West Asia on European football is through broadcaster beIN SPORTS." beIN SPORTS and UEFA have signed a new agreement whereby the international broadcaster has secured the exclusive media rights to a suite of European national team football exclusively across 24 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). 

Qatari businessman Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of beIN and the president of PSG is also now the new European Club Association chairman. Sengupta adds, "So, there are chances of the European football calendar getting further tweaked for Qatar's benefit, as we saw during the 2022 World Cup."

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Karim Benzema, Middle Eastern countries are eyeing star footballers. Here's why

Rising interest in football

Saudi Arabia wants to increase the revenue from Saudi Pro League and make it one of the top 10 leagues in the world. Football has a massive fan-following in the Middle East. “Bringing in players like Ronaldo or Benzema attracts a lot of attention. You need that kind of appeal, especially when you want to generate public interest and grow the league,” adds Sengupta.

Experts reckon that the four major teams—Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal—could attract close to 70,000 supporters for their home games if enough big stars are signed. This would make it easier to sell and attract foreign television rights and advertisers.

China also used a similar scheme close to a decade ago, through a series of expensive high-profile buys. “A few years back, the Chinese Super League clubs were buying players [from European clubs] who were in their prime. But it didn’t last, since the government then added some spending limits,” states Sengupta.

The country is also readying a potential joint bid to stage the 2030 World Cup, particularly since Qatar hosted the 2022 edition. Reports suggest that the country’s leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman finds sport to be a key factor in changing the country’s global political and economic standing. The country has already made inroads into football and golf, and is apparently also targeting boxing and Formula One.

Whether the Saudi Pro League will bag many more European football stars or will Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim be the new owner of Manchester United is still unclear. But, in either case, the influence of the Middle East on world football is here to stay.

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