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Marseille ticks boxes for Saudi’s next football foray

Reports suggest the kingdom is keen to add the French club to its growing sports portfolio

Pierre Emerick Aubameyang (OM) Oualid El Hajjam (AC Le Havre) Baptiste Autissier/Panoramic via Reuters Connect
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Marseilles. The club could be another target for PIF

Rumours are afoot that Saudi Arabia may soon snap up French football team Marseille.

So it is that English club Newcastle United – the kingdom’s top sports asset to date – could have a rival for the riyals of Saudi owners by the time it plays its next competitive game in September.

Word coming out of France suggests Saudi Arabia’s state investment vehicle Public Investment Fund (PIF) is closing in on the purchase of a Ligue 1 (premier league) club.

The reports, based on recent company registration filings by PIF, are leading fans and investors to ponder which club the oil-rich Gulf state may bid for. 

The leading candidate is Marseille. Several consortia have previously pitched the French trophy club to state entities in Riyadh, promising, among other things, to install legendary footballer Zinedine Zidane as manager. 

Speculation surrounding Marseille’s purchase by PIF is also being stoked by reports that the club’s current owner, American entrepreneur Frank McCourt, is trying to buy China’s social media behemoth TikTok. But whether he is willing to drop his French football assets to clinch the Asian deal remains to be seen.

If the Saudis were to bid for Marseille, it would be consistent with PIF’s aim of acquiring commercially underperforming sports clubs with a global footprint. 

Marseille has a long and illustrious history as a club – including winning the newly-branded Uefa Champions League in 1993. Home matches boast average attendances of more than 50,000 people and the team was previously captained by Didier Deschamps, now the French national team manager. 

There is potential for cultural alignment between stakeholders. Marseille is a city of almost 900,000 people, around 40 percent of them Muslim

To name the French club among its roster of football assets would confer considerable sporting credibility and legitimacy upon Saudi Arabia.

What’s more, the club made 20th place among the highest revenue generating clubs in the world, according to consulting firm Deloitte.

But these sums represent only around a quarter of what Spain’s Real Madrid earns. PIF will likely be looking at Marseille’s potential for growth.

There is for example potential for cultural alignment between stakeholders. Marseille is a city of almost 900,000 people, around 40 percent of them Muslim.

Such diasporas are often ignored in football, but a potential Saudi takeover could create interesting fan engagement opportunities.

As with Newcastle United and Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City, seeking value from a football club is a multifaceted commercial proposition. In the cases of both British clubs, the owners have also pursued local, related real estate developments. 

Urban deprivation and social problems in Marseille present several opportunities for Saudi Arabia, perhaps in helping it project soft power amongst an important target audience.

At the same time, the city’s deep-water ports may be of some interest to PIF. Marseille is home to one of the largest cruise ship ports in the world and the third largest container port in the Mediterranean.

Both tourism and container shipping are strategic priorities for the kingdom. 

Football club ownership has long been a basis upon which to build business networks and extend local political influence. Marseille’s current shirt is even emblazoned with the logo of a French-owned maritime logistics company with offices in Saudi Arabia.

For the moment we are talking about rumour and speculation. It could be the case that Saudi Arabia turns its attention to Valencia in Spain, another port city with an underachieving football club, or to a club in Italy, such as AS Roma or Inter Milan.

However, the former does not provide the same cultural alignment as Marseille, while in Italy the government is considering plans to regulate foreign ownership of football clubs. 

For the moment, until the final whistle is blown, it seems that the French option for PIF is the most compelling.

Simon Chadwick is professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in France

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