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Saudi football is no threat, say major Euro leagues

InterMilan fans celebrate, football, Italy Reuters/Claudia Greco
Passion and pride: InterMilan fans at the Champions League semi-final in May
  • Italy’s Serie A intent on growth in Middle East market
  • Rivals include English Premier League and Saudi Pro League
  • UAE office to promote Italian clubs like Juventus and AC Milan

Two of Europe’s top leagues have shrugged off the challenges posed by Saudi Arabia’s billion-dollar emergence onto the global football scene.

Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s LaLiga told AGBI the kingdom’s quest to sign up some of the best talent in the sport will have no bearing on plans to increase their own market share across the Middle East region.

The Saudi Pro League has been hitting the headlines for some of its recent big name signings.

Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al Nassr last year in a deal that is expected to earn the 37-year-old over $200 million a year.

French forward Karim Benzema also made the switch this summer from Real Madrid to Saudi champions Al-Ittihad. The 35-year-old signed a three-year deal reported to be worth $326.7 million.

Chelsea midfielder N’golo Kante has signed a contract to join Benzema at Al-Ittihad

“I don’t see any threat at all,” Alfonso De Stefano, Middle East and North Africa (Mena) managing director for Serie A, said at the launch of the league’s new office at the Yas Creative Hub in the UAE capital – its second outside Italy following the opening of its North American outpost in New York in May last year.

“In fact we are cooperating through our league jointly with different sporting bodies, contributing to the development of the sport from grassroots to the technical management and performance.”

With over 16 million Serie A fans in the Mena region, it represents a key market for the Italian football league – especially as half of the population is under the age of 25.

Serie A is keen to raise the profile in the region of leading clubs such as Juventus, AC Milan, current champions Napoli, Europa League runners-up Roma, Lazio and Champions League finalists Inter Milan.

The organisation will also invest in football at a grassroots level to bring on local talent.

Italy's Series A football Middle EastReuters/Susana Vera
Karim Benzema switched from Real Madrid to Saudi champions Al-Ittihad in a signing reported to be worth $326m

“We consider the Middle East the biggest market for the future because there is a huge population and they are passionate about football,” De Stefano said.

He added that 50 percent of the league’s total social media following comes from the region.

Saudi Arabia will host the 2024, 2025, 2028 and 2029 Italian Super Cups. 

The kingdom’s spending spree forms part of a plan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to transform the Saudi Pro League into a SAR8 billion ($2.1 billion) force by the end of the decade.

Spain’s LaLiga has had a Mena headquarters at the Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC) since 2021.

A spokesperson said the evolution of football in Saudi has been a “strategic focus” for the league as the Middle East region “plays a vital role” in its international expansion.

“LaLiga’s presence in KSA and the Middle East extends beyond mere commercial interests, as it is deeply committed to fostering football development in the country due to its immense potential for growth and the high number of LaLiga fans in the kingdom,” they added.

LaLiga boasts over 24 million social media followers across the region, including one million on its Arabic Twitter account.

Saudi Arabia is to host the Spanish Super Cup – the champions and runners-up of La Liga and the Copa Del Rey – through to 2029 after a deal signed between the country and the Royal Spanish Football Federation.