US, European sports reeling from Saudi ‘oil money’ carpet bombing
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, 38, is one of the biggest soccer stars of his generation. When news broke late last year that he had parted ways with English Premier League giants Manchester United to join Saudi Arabia’s professional soccer league Al-Nasr, it came as a bit of a shock to his fans. It was hard to accept that a soccer star whose mystical skills had defined an era would be sold for a fortune in oil money and spend the rest of his soccer career at a much lower level.
But Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia was just the beginning. His contemporary and fellow top star, Lionel Messi (36, Argentina), was also repeatedly linked in the media with a move to Saudi club Al-Hilal. “If money was an issue, I would have gone to Saudi Arabia. It’s time to play a different way of soccer and enjoy my daily life more,” he said, adding that he would rather play for Inter Miami CF of the U.S. Major League Soccer (MLS). The Saudis went to great lengths to lure Messi to their league, including making him a tourism ambassador, but ultimately failed. However, the possibility of Messi following Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia came as a shock to European soccer, as the “Messi vs. Messi” match, which was a big card that excited the world soccer world, was on the verge of becoming a reality in the Saudi league.스포츠토토
Al-Nasr’s Ronaldo attempts a shot during their Saudi professional soccer league match against Al-Shabab, May 23. REUTERS Associated Press
On June 6, it was announced that Karim Benzema would join Saudi Arabian soccer team Al Ittihad. Al-Attiyad ⓒREUTERS
Benzema to Saudi Arabia for nine times his Real Madrid salary
However, although it was not the Meho match, another big card, the ‘Hoven match’, was fulfilled. On June 7, Karim Benzema (35, France), who had made a name for himself as a top goal scorer at Real Madrid alongside Ronaldo, signed a three-year contract with another Saudi club, Al Ittihad, much to the dismay of Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, who had been trying to keep him. When Benzema, who has one more year left on his contract, was linked with a move to Saudi Arabia, Ancelotti said: “The club’s legend should finish his career here. This is what the fans and the club want,” he said, adding, “Without a doubt, Benzema will remain at Real Madrid.” However, the Ballon d’Or winner couldn’t resist the lure of oil money after the 2022-23 season and decided to finish his football career in the unfamiliar country of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Ittihad reportedly offered him a whopping €200 million ($274.6 million). It’s also been said that it’s nine years’ worth of his Real Madrid salary (around 33 billion won). No player would be able to resist such a temptation. It doesn’t stop with Ronaldo and Benzema. The Saudi Professional Football League is becoming an El Dorado for soccer stars in their twilight years. In fact, they’re not the only ones rumored to be moving to Saudi Arabia, as many of the biggest names in European soccer have been linked to the country. Oil money is the driving force behind the exodus of European club soccer veterans to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) is at the center of it all. Last year, the PIF created LIVGolf, which siphoned off many of the world’s top men’s golf stars, disrupting the long-established and prestigious U.S. Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour. To put it mildly, it was akin to the devastation of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, the heart of America, on September 11, 2001.
While Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, and others refused to play for LIV Golf after being offered up to $100 million in oil money, the PGA was shaken to its core as top stars such as Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, and Cameron Smith moved to LIV in droves. The PGA and LIV recently announced a merger after a series of twists and turns, seemingly putting an end to the conflict. However, it is widely believed that the merger is actually the PGA’s capitulation to LIV’s money power.
Players and caddies congratulate each other on stage with the team trophy after winning the LIV Golf Tour in Saudi Arabia on May 28. AP
Saudi Arabia’s bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup
In any case, the Saudi PIF is now a “big player” in European club soccer and the PGA, shaking up the world sports scene. It’s a reminder that money is no object in international sports. The BBC recently highlighted the behavior of the Saudi PIF, stating that “they are behind a massive golf merger, control Newcastle United, and are bringing the world’s best soccer players to the Middle East”. According to the BBC analysis, the PIF is a “big pot of money. To be precise, it’s worth £51.4 billion (about $824 trillion). It’s an unimaginable sum. The PIF was created in 1971 to allow the Saudi government to invest in various sectors, and is basically a giant savings account for the country. It’s only possible because the Saudis have made astronomical amounts of money selling oil. It is headquartered in the capital Riyadh, with regional offices in Hong Kong, London, and New York.
It ostensibly aims to generate profits for the Saudi economy through real estate and venture investments in domestic and foreign companies. It is headed by Yasir Al-Rumayan, but experts believe that Crown Prince Muhammad Binsalman Al-Saud, 37, the kingdom’s “de facto ruler,” controls the purse strings.
The PIF recently announced it would buy four clubs in the Saudi Professional Soccer League. The Saudis don’t have the “financial fair play” rules that govern European club soccer, so they can spend as much money as they want to sign Ronaldo and Benzema, as well as additional players. The PIF spends a lot of money abroad, most notably with the £300 million ($481 million) purchase of English Premier League club Newcastle United in 2021 by a consortium they led. Newcastle United is a prestigious team that finished fourth in the Premier League in the 2022-23 season.