Saudi Arabia Isn’t Giving Up on Soccer

The government's investments haven't led to much match attendance yet, but it's not done trying

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 10: Kevin De Bruyne and Pep Guardiola the head coach / manager of Manchester City during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Everton FC at Etihad Stadium on February 10, 2024 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola is definitely not directing his star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne toward the SPL.
Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

If 130 or 140 people showed up to a Kansas City Chiefs game, you wouldn’t expect them to be able to afford Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. But that’s not exactly the case in the Saudi Pro League (SPL).

Attendance at Saudi Arabia’s top-flight soccer league has reportedly been that poor at times, with one team averaging fewer than 2,000 fans across all its home games. Yes, a handful of matches around the league have attracted 50,000-plus attendees, but the fact that Saudi Pro League teams invested hundreds of millions of dollars last year to lure some of the world’s finest soccer players from other pretty cash-rich clubs, such attendance figures should be seen as problematic. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Saudi Arabia.

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According to an ESPN source, SPL teams are targeting a number of Premier League stars ahead of the upcoming summer transfer window. Continuing with the league’s trend of signing established players in the second halves of their careers, Kevin De Bruyne, Mohamed Salah, Virgil van Dijk, Alisson, Raphaël Varane, Casemiro, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Andreas Pereira are said to be on SPL teams’ wishlists. But some younger stars and even coveted managers competing in other European leagues might also be regaled with lucrative contracts.

“Sources in Saudi Arabia are not expecting top-flight teams to match their record £757 million ($957m) spend from 2023 but insist this summer’s transfer strategy will be equally aggressive and the outlay on player fees is set to be significant,” ESPN wrote.

Some SPL teams have that kind of money to throw around because they are owned by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), the same government body behind LIV Golf’s poaching of PGA Tour players. Its goal these days is to diversify the fund’s portfolio as the world moves further away from oil dependency and is doing so with what might seem like reckless abandon to some.

“There have been reports that PIF tried to buy Formula 1 and is interested in investing in Indian Premier League cricket,” wrote the BBC. “There are also rumours it could be looking to create its own breakaway tennis tour, as it has done in golf. Put simply, Saudi Arabia’s riches are transforming the sporting landscape, with a profound and controversial shift in influence gathering pace. It seems Saudi Arabia has become the biggest story in world sport, presenting federations and athletes with remarkable financial opportunities but also bringing scrutiny.”

Critics of the PIF’s approach to investing say the government body has an alternative agenda, that of “sportswashing,” an attempt to bring more positive press to a ruling class that boasts a reprehensible human rights record. But, the BBC noted, “Many observers say a combination of factors is ultimately behind the country’s sports strategy and that international profile and prestige is at least part of the motivation, alongside domestic security, amid fears of a potential second ‘Arab Spring’. Another reason could be intra-regional rivalry, with Saudi Arabia wanting to compete with neighboring petro-states such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, who have also established themselves as sporting hubs.”

Whatever the reason, the PIF doesn’t appear to be giving up on soccer player investment just yet. Many of them have taken the money. Whether or not their integrity is intact and they can stand to perform in front of such scant crowds is another story.

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