July 28, 2023


How the Saudi Empire bought football (JONATHAN WILSON, 7/28/23, UnHerd)

So neither billionaire nor government involvement in football is new -- it wasn't even new when Mussolini transformed the 1934 World Cup into a celebration of fascist Italy. But the investments made in sport by Saudi Arabia over the past two years have taken it to a new level. A Guardian report suggests spending by the Saudi Public Investment Fund in sport totals at least £6bn since the beginning of 2021. Saudi Arabia has staged Formula One grands prix and world championship title fights; it set up a rebel golf tour, is planning a $500m "esports city" and bought Newcastle United. A bid to host the 2030 World Cup appears to have stalled, but earlier this year the PIF bought the four most storied teams in the Saudi league -- Al Nassr (which had already signed Cristiano Ronaldo), Al Hilal, Al Ahli and Al Ittihad.

Whether the PIF is an arm of the Saudi state depends who it is talking to. Richard Masters, the CEO of the Premier League, claimed he had "legally binding assurances" that the PIF, which is chaired by Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince and prime minister of Saudi Arabia, is an independent body. In a filing to a US federal court investigating the establishment of the rebel golf tour, though, the PIF was described as "a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia", while a discovery order was dismissed as "an extraordinary infringement on the sovereignty of a foreign state". Masters told a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee in March that he was unable to comment on the discrepancy.

Saudi clubs have been busy this summer signing rafts of ageing players -- standard practice for a league looking to raise its profile and establish itself. It was the business model of the North American Soccer League in the Seventies, and countries as diverse as Japan, Australia, India and China have followed a similar path. What is different is that Saudi pockets may be deep enough that, having established credibility, they can soon start to entice stars who are at or approaching their peak. Which brings us back to Mbappé. His time at PSG has been, certainly from a purely footballing point of view, a failure. Although PSG are perennial winners of the French league, it means very little when they are so much richer than everybody else. PSG have never won the Champions League. Other than 2020, when they lost in the final to Bayern Munich, they haven't really got close. In each of the last two seasons, since Lionel Messi joined Neymar and Mbappé to form a vaunted but disjointed forward line, they've gone out in the last 16.

Elite modern football is not won by a collection of egocentric superstars, no matter how individually gifted. Coaches who leave PSG speak of a corrosive dressing-room dynamic, of bitter infighting and essentially ungovernable players who object to game plans that require too much running. The best sides are coherent units in which every component not only has a critical function in itself, but in relation to other components within the system. It is not something easy to represent statistically, but a useful guide is how much defending forwards do. Mbappé made a total of 10 tackles and six interceptions in the whole of last season: he has become symptomatic of the way PSG's stars are indulged to the detriment of the team. There is a sense that, brilliant as Mbappé is, he could be better and that he is stagnating at PSG.

...you can't afford to play him, as Cristiano Ronaldo showed. 

Posted by at July 28, 2023 7:44 AM