Saudi Arabia's Soccer Star Strategy: Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar in Focus
Recently, German professional footballer Toni Kroos voiced his concerns to reporters, stating that Saudi Arabia's influence on the sport of soccer was having a detrimental impact.
Kroos, a former member of the German national team, was not the only one to express this sentiment. Sports analysts and fans alike have criticized Saudi Arabia's recent practice of luring some of the world's most renowned football players to its domestic league by offering them extravagant multi-million dollar contracts
Players like Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazilian sensation Neymar, French striker Karim Benzema, Senegal's Sadio Mane, and several others have all signed mega deals with teams in the Saudi football league. It is estimated that the combined salaries for these players could exceed $1 billion (€926 million).
Speaking to a German paper, Kroos was of the opinion that it all boils down to a choice between money and the essence of football. He feels that once that balance tips too far towards money, it becomes increasingly challenging to preserve the meaning of football.
Related industries such as gambling are set to reap big from the Saudi reinvention, with betting sites paying more focus on the Saudi League. Sports betting sites in the US and the world might get a whole new fan base, but it is always advisable to vet the available options to settle for the best. New punters can check out for the best options to bet on.
However, could football also pose challenges for Saudi Arabia's autocratic government? It's worth considering that the heightened international attention brought about by these high-profile players could lead to increased scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's monarchy and its human rights track record. Notably, Toni Kroos himself cited the human rights situation as the reason he wouldn't consider playing in the Saudi league.
Sports Strategy for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia's determined effort to expand its influence in international football aligns with its ambitious Vision 2030 plan, aimed at diversifying its economy away from oil and towards sectors such as tourism and entertainment.
Through substantial financial investments and sponsorships, Saudi Arabia has ventured into a wide array of sports, including golf, cricket, cycling, Formula One, tennis, wrestling, and, more recently, mixed martial arts. Initially, football wasn't the primary focus. As James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East football, pointed out, the initial consultants tasked with developing Saudi Arabia's national sports strategy were advised to emphasize individual sports like tennis or golf over team sports.
This shift away from team sports was intended to mitigate football's potential as a platform for anti-government protests, as Dorsey highlighted in a recent publication.
The historical context in the region also demonstrates how football can become a politically sensitive issue. For instance, in 1958, during Algeria's struggle for independence from colonial power France, some of the top Algerian football players stirred controversy by defecting from the French football league to establish their independent national team.
In 2000, Libyan football fans took to the field in Benghazi to protest an unfair match involving a club owned by the son of slain President Muammar Gadhafi.
In 2011, Egyptian hardcore football enthusiasts known as "ultras" played a significant role in the revolution that eventually led to the overthrow of Egypt's long-standing dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Most recently, Qatar amended its labor laws in response to international criticism before and during the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which it hosted.
After 2018, Saudi Arabia shifted its stance on team sports, despite prior advice against them, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidated power. The government claims its focus on football aims at economic diversification, addressing public health issues (over 60% are overweight), and sports infrastructure development. However, human rights activists see it as "sportswashing," diverting attention from political repression.
In reality, Saudi Arabia's sports strategy is a mix of internal and external political factors. Football, wildly popular among the two-thirds of the population under 35, is integral to economic sustainability and addressing non-economic concerns. Autocrats, as noted in a 2022 paper, often use sports for legitimacy and co-optation. Saudi Arabia follows this pattern.
According to Prof. Adam Scharpf, having top footballers like Ronaldo and Neymar in the country's league aims to impress citizens and showcase Saudi Arabia's global competitiveness, but it's combined with repression. Despite missing out on the list of the top 5 footballers on the globe, Ronaldo still commands massive influence on the sport as an established brand.
Both Dorsey and Scharpf likened this to the "bread and circuses" concept, where entertaining and feeding citizens discourages political engagement.
Simon Chadwick, a sports and politics professor in France, emphasized that the government offers star players to the public while discouraging criticism. Recent arrests for negative comments about the government illustrate this.
Sports in autocratic regimes can worsen issues. After studying the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, Scharpf and researchers found that such regimes strategically handle sports events, sometimes increasing violence and surveillance.
Dorsey noted that while sports can bring change, it depends on circumstances and how leaders use it. In Egypt in 2011, football fans played a role due to widespread discontent, but a similar scenario in Saudi Arabia seems unlikely.