It was around 2017 when Arsene Wenger had taken note of the immense growth of the Chinese Super League, and made clear to the world his worry of the danger that it posed to European football.
If Chinese wages become the benchmark then you cannot compete with that. But we do not know whether, in 10 years’ time, China will still be doing it. Sometimes, if it’s a political decision, that can change.
– Arsene Wenger
And his predictions came true, almost to the T. Following the signing of many stars, such as Oscar, 18 new rules were put in place by the Chinese government. One such rule would see “ultra-high-worth” signings being heavily taxed. Another rule restricted teams to just three foreign players in the starting eleven, reduced from for. The threat of the Chinese Super League was no more.
Today, there is a new force rising in the Middle East. Fueled by endless wallets with wealth dug up from deep underneath the soil, the Saudi Pro League has made itself known in the global footballing world.
They say that money can’t buy happiness, but the Saudis think it can. Apart from the high-profile signing Cristiano Ronaldo, the Middle Eastern league has sourced other talent from Europe, such as Ballon D’or winner Karim Benzema, former Paris Saint-Germain Star Neymar Jr. and 2020/21 Champions League Midfielder of the Season, N’golo Kanté.
To lure these big-name players to the Saudi Pro League, lucrative wages, such as the $776 Million per year wage offered to Kylian Mbappe, are offered to players.
Apart from this being used as a “sportswashing” ploy, this is an attempt to generate popularity for the Saudi Pro League, with an aim to perch it on the same plane as leagues like LaLiga and the Premier League.
However, there are large gaps that the Saudi League will need to bridge if they want to lift this league into stardom.
The glaring issue is that there is a wide discrepancy between the strength of the top four teams versus the rest in the Saudi Pro League. The top four clubs – Al-Nassr, Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad, and Al-Hilal, have had 75% of their stake acquired by the Public Investment Fund. The Fund is controlled by the government. This is what enabled these clubs to spend so lucratively and buy big names
However, outside of these four clubs, team strength remains relatively weak. Since the other clubs are not funded nearly as much, the gap in quality between the top four and the rest is immense.
Compare this to the Premier League, where, despite the “Big Six”, all Clubs are on a relatively equal level. Each team, even an underdog, can cause an upset, when playing against a bigger side. The same goes for LaLiga and Serie A. This is the reason why Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga are not regarded as highly as the Premier League – namely, lack of competitiveness.
The argument could be made that resounding 6-0 or 7-0 wins by bigger teams are more entertaining than 1-1 or 0-0 draws, but it is the shock factor of these resounding wins that makes them special. The surprise of a scoreline between Manchester City and Crystal Palace reading 2-2 and the scenes when Leicester won the Premier League in 2015/16 are what has made the Premier League the most watched league in the world. This is only possible when every team is competitive, something which is not tenable in the Saudi Pro League, as the government continues to fund the “Big Four”.
However, the backbone of the popularity of European football isn’t the competitiveness of the league. It is the infrastructure and development that goes on behind the scenes at every club that makes the European Football scene so popular. In particular, youth development and scouting. English clubs have scouts sent all across the globe. LaLiga is able to poach young talent from South and Latin America. French clubs can look to Africa for troves of talent.
Think about one of the greatest names in world football over the past two decades – Lionel Messi. His ‘discovery’ has been mostly attributed to Carles Rexach, who, after talking to Argentinian agent Horacio Gaggioli, made a trip to Argentina to watch this “phenomenon” play. Following a swift meeting, the famous makeshift contract was signed on a napkin. It’s safe to say that without Barcelona’s scouting network extending deep into Argentina, Messi wouldn’t have been discovered. We wouldn’t have experienced such an illustrious career pan out over the last 20 years.
Yet, Messi’s impact was multifaceted. Through their well-grounded scouting network, Barcelona did not just acquire a generational talent, they acquired a loyal fanbase, that grew as Messi’s fame multiplied.
Think about it. A loyal football fan supports a club over a player. Although Barcelona was a popular fan choice before the Messi Era, the club acquired a whole host of new fans as Messi’s stardom grew. These loyal fans, even as Messi moved elsewhere – to PSG, to Inter Miami – continued to support FC Barcelona. Messi’s quality and legendary status translated into profit and a fanbase for the club.
The same goes for any club and player. If a football fan falls deeply in love with a player synonymous with a club (like Messi was with Barcelona), they’ll find it hard to move on once the player has left. Think of the likes of Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, etc. Merely signing on players isn’t the route to fans’ hearts. Nurturing and developing a talent of the club’s own, is what strengthens loyalty in a fanbase.
Without a proper scouting system in place, clubs in the Saudi Pro League cannot find and nurture young talents. This means that they are unlikely to gain a significant fan following. Did Ronaldo moving to Al-Nassr really get them any new die-hard fans? Sure, they may have gained Instagram followers, but no fans are going to watch their games week-in, week-out.
The Saudi Pro League will find it hard to gain popularity with this unsustainable business model. Procuring big-names while forsaking competition, spending lucratively and forgetting about loyalty, collecting aging stars but forgetting about the youth, is short-sighted. The Saudi Pro League may make headlines for now, but in its current form, it is unlikely to be competitive or pose a big threat to European football in the long term.