By nature, sports fans are passionate, and are either obsessively thrilled about something or, more often, enraged by something else—an incompetent coach, an unfair call, even destructive owners. This summer, many soccer fans were on the latter end of the spectrum. There were cries across the community, all championing the same complaint: Saudi Arabia is ruining soccer.
These reactions came after Saudi Arabian clubs made recruit after recruit during the transfer season. It wasn’t a matter of a singular move, like Christiano Ronaldo’s move to the country in January. This was a matter of nine or ten big names from Europe (among them players such as Neymar, Ngolo Kante and Karim Benzema) announcing their leave within the span of several weeks.
Perhaps what set it off completely, though, was the offer placed for star Kylian Mbappé to join the club Al-Hilal: a whopping $332 million, an amount that would have set the record for the largest transfer fee in football history. This was different from the other deals, aside from its sheer valuation, because Mbappé is within his prime athletic years. Though the other names moving to Saudi Arabia were big deals, they made more sense: they were older players who had their time in the European spotlight and were now choosing a lucrative way to see out their career. However, Kylian Mbappé is a 24-year-old superstar who nearly led his national team, France, to victory at the World Cup in December. A move to Saudi Arabia would, to the football community, mean a loss of one of the best active players away from the competitive center of Europe.
It was then that cries started to be heard about Saudi Arabia “ruining” soccer. But did they, or was the game already poisoned?
Flashing back 15 years ago, the club Manchester City was acquired by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which has a net worth of approximately $17 billion. Since, the company has spent about $1.57 billion on transfer fees and have won seven league titles, their most recent helping to make up the “Treble”, which means the team won the English league, the FA Cup Championship, and the Champions League in the same season. It is an incredible feat that is likely attributable to many factors. However, the glaring one to observers is that $1.57 billion was spent to put together such a team. Within the last 15 years, the club has been accused of breaching over 100 financial fair play rules, which are in place to ensure a certain degree of fairness in situations like these; however, such accusations clearly have not significantly impacted their spending nor their success.
However, at least Manchester City spends money and gets results. The other big name club that often comes up in these conversations is Paris Saint Germain, or PSG, which has spent comparable money without the same results. Or, rather, without the one specific, coveted result: the UEFA Champions League. When the club was bought by Qatar Sports Investments in 2011, the promise was to bring a Champions League victory to PSG. That was 12 years and $1.4 billion in transfer fees ago. In that time, they bought superstars and big names like Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Sergio Ramos, and ran through seven different managers, all to no avail. The club stands out as an epitome to this new, big money way of approaching the transfer market—with less intelligence and more brute strength, paying any price for a big name.
But as we have seen with PSG, big names do not always mean success. Even with Manchester City, which proves it sometimes does, it is not a necessary path to success. Other clubs have been hugely successful via tactics and strategic recruiting instead; for example, the club SSC Napoli. This is a club that rose from bankruptcy in 2004 to champions of the Italian league in 2023. They did not have billions of dollars and squads of big name players backing them. Instead, they relied on smart, analytical moves in the transfer market and creative coaching. In the summer before they won the league, they spent just $58 million on transfers. They did so by scouting effectively for players who would fit best into their squad. A forward, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, that they bought for $10 million and helped them win the league, is now valued at about $85 million.
Another success story is that of Brighton FC, who qualified for European football for the first time in the club’s history earlier this year. They did so by relying on unique data analytics, an ever-evolving style of play and, again, clever scouting. Their current buzz player, Kaoru Mitoma, was signed from Japan for $2.5 million; he is now worth close to 40. Success does not always come from money, and perhaps having money at your disposal, like PSG does, not only harms organic success on the field, but becomes a crutch rather than an aid.
Aside from its effects on the field, the money flowing into the game also has human rights implications. The owner of PSG is also the leader of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a country with a host of controversial human rights issues against migrant workers, women and people in the LGBTI community. Qatar also hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2022, exploiting and abusing workers in order to prepare for the event. The issue lies wherein the benefits the Qatari government sees from these harms fund Paris Saint Germain via Qatar Sports Investments.
There are also concerns with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. In 2022, Saudi Arabia targeted individuals for peacefully expressing their beliefs, issuing unfair trials that led to lengthy prison sentences and in some cases the death penalty, even to those who were children at the time of their accused crime.
Additionally, there is the consideration that the majority of the Saudi Arabian and Qatari economies are dependent on and driven by petroleum and other fossil fuels. This adds a climate element to the equation, in which clubs, players, and the overall game are being run by “oil money.”
As such, the concern for this entrance of money into the sport is not just a matter of concern for the quality or fairness of the game. While of course there are arguments to be made about financial fair play or the merits of winning a championship after spending heaps of money versus in more “organic” ways, the issues extend beyond that to the source of the money itself. The money funding these clubs comes from problematic governments that commit human rights abuses and exploit the people under them in order to earn it.
It is for this reason that I argue that the Saudi Arabian influx this summer should not be reviled for “ruining football.” Because in the context of dirty money directing some of the biggest players and clubs in the sport, this is a phenomenon that has been occurring for the past decade. The other facet for why people claim these moves have hurt the sport is that it pulls stars away from the main European stage. However, to me this argument has less merit. Sure, people are upset because they can’t watch these players as easily, or perhaps their perceived view of the quality of the games or their team may seem worse without certain players, but I do not think this is bad in and of itself. Other leagues, such as Major League Soccer in the United States and Canada, are growing. Having big name European players, even those on the verge of retirement, is a sign of a league’s growth and the sport’s potential in the country.
So, people might be upset that their favorite players are leaving. But I argue there is more of an issue with the source of the money drawing them away than with their simple departure. The money drawing the players away comes mostly from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s top ten largest sovereign wealth funds. They own the majority of four of the league’s biggest clubs and are the ones who made the record $332 million offer for Kylian Mbappe.
In all, it can be pretty widely agreed upon that the influx of Saudi Arabian money in football isn’t something people like to watch happen, whether for its human rights implications, effects on the European market, or its sapping of big names away from center stage. But this phenomenon is not new, and perhaps part of a larger transition in football into a climate where such money holds the most influence and dictates the movements in the sport. This summer’s Saudi Arabian transfers are the product of a more comprehensive event and should be attributed and evaluated as such.
The views expressed in opinion pieces do not represent the views of Glimpse from the Globe or its editorial team.