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When Saudi Arabia caught the football bug

Forget the sneering Western media, it's the fans that matter

Al Hilal's new signing Neymar poses with club president Fahd bin Saad Al-Nafel Saudi Pro League/Reuters
Al Hilal's new signing Neymar poses with club president Fahd bin Saad Al-Nafel

It was October 17, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, long before the arrival in Riyadh of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and now Neymar Jnr, that I realised Saudi Arabia was going to go big into football.

That was the first game Newcastle United played under Saudi ownership, and they were playing my life-long team, Tottenham Hotspur.

Amanda Staveley, who had been instrumental in orchestrating the long drawn-out takeover by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), had kindly invited me, and I was pleased to accept.

Tottenham won 3-2, and I was a bit apprehensive about entering the Chairman’s Suite after the game, but I needn’t have been. The big Saudi contingent at St James’s Park that day, led by PIF governor (and new Newcastle chairman) Yasir Al Rumayyan, didn’t seem to care about the result.

They were all buzzing about the fact of having watched 90 minutes of real football, in the intense cauldron of the Newcastle stadium, and excited about the future for the club they now owned. 

They had caught the football bug, well and truly, and it was only a matter of time before the whole kingdom became infected too, I thought.

Although I take credit for spotting the symptoms of Saudi football fever early on, nobody could have foreseen the speed and magnitude of the Saudi move on the global game, which started last year with the signing of Ronaldo by Al Nassr but which has turned into a deluge of football talent this summer.

Not just the big three I mentioned at the top, but a whole squad of stars from European leagues has made the move to the kingdom.

Okay, Saudi Arabia missed out on Lionel Messi, who preferred Miami, but they have done more than enough, you would think, to kick-start the Saudi Pro League, which plays its second round of games this weekend.

And they’re still hopeful of getting Killian Mbappe, a young French superstar challenging Messi for the global “king of football” crown.

Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan (left) celebrates with part owner Amanda Staveley in the stands after Newcastle United's Callum Wilson score against Tottenham in 2021 Reuters/Lee Smith
Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and part-owner Amanda Staveley enjoy the match against Tottenham in 2021

Detractors in the West will say: “These are only has-beens at the end of their football careers lured by big bucks.” But that is missing the point.

Before the Saudi Pro League burst on the scene all these players would have moved on to mid-ranking clubs in Europe or maybe the USA, to play out their declining years on ever-decreasing pay in front of ever-smaller crowds.

Now they have a chance to take part in the biggest transformation in global football for decades, and – with salaries reported in some cases to be better by a factor of 10 – to ensure their futures in a way they could never have hoped for back in Europe.

Money talks in football. The Western media already knows this very well – indeed, never stops complaining about it – which makes their outrage all the more hypocritical.

But even in the cynical newsrooms of London, there has been a distinct shift. There seems to be a genuine interest in what’s happening in Saudi football, to the extent that The Times and the Guardian both sent correspondents to Saudi Arabia for the opening weekend of the league.

The reports were laden with cheap cracks about the Saudi weather (it gets hot in summer – who would have thought?), some sneering remarks about the crowd, and plenty of innuendo about the “mercenary” nature of the new signings.

But there was serious discussion of the Saudi football phenomenon too.

These reporters are genuinely intrigued by what’s going on in the kingdom, and I’m sure that sense of curiosity will transmit itself to readers and football fans back home.

Al Hilal fans at the Arab Club Champions Cup Final against Al Nassr in August at the King Fahd StadiumReuters/Stringer
Al Hilal fans at the Arab Club Champions Cup Final against Al Nassr at the King Fahd Stadium in August

The Spectator, a UK right-wing magazine, published an article about my erstwhile Tottenham hero, tragically sold to Bayern Munich of Germany recently, headed “Harry Kane should have gone to Saudi Arabia”, that was only marginally tongue-in-cheek. 

What is the Saudi endgame? It was thought that the kingdom was keen on winning the 2030 Fifa World Cup, and that elevating its domestic game would be a platform for a successful bid. Recent reports suggest the kingdom has cooled on staging the competition, at least as early as 2030.

More recently, it was reported that Saudi wanted its clubs to be able to compete in the Uefa Champions League, the biggest money spinner in the game after the Fifa competition.

That would spark howls of outrage in some parts of Europe, even among those who accept Qarabag FK  (Azerbaijan) and FC Astana (Kazakhstan) as members of the European footballing “family”.

The fans – in Saudi Arabia and around the world – won’t care. If they get to see top-class players competing against each other, in person at the stadiums or on TV elsewhere in the world they will be happy enough, win or lose. Just like those PIF executives in Newcastle.

Frank Kane is AGBI Editor-at-Large

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