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The Saudi football takeover is a taste of our own medicine

Cristiano Ronaldo moved to the Saudi league in December, and Kylian Mbappé could yet join him. Credit: Getty

July 26, 2023 - 1:10pm

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Dying Detective, Sherlock Holmes lies bedbound, apparently dying of a rare but deadly “out-of-the-way Asiatic disease”. (Spoiler: he’s not.) Much intrigue ensues, with plot twists and amazing feats of deduction in search of a cure. What is really interesting about this tale, though, is not so much what happens to the detective, but what it reveals about the Edwardian imagination of the time, just before the outbreak of the First World War. 

Hanging over the story is the malign spectre of the East corrupting the peaceful order of things at home. Britain had taken possession of strange, faraway lands, but now those distant places have found their way to Britain and are corrupting the metropole itself. Some academics now argue that what the dying Holmes is really seeking to protect in this story is the Victorian status quo itself, “threatened by some malignant influence” from abroad. 

Whether or not this is true, the Holmes story does reveal a latent concern in the European imagination about the dangers of imperial conquest — or even what we might now call globalisation. Similar fears hang over the panicky discussions taking place today across Europe, now concerning the sudden expansion of the Saudi football league. In recent months a host of star players have moved to the division from top European clubs, having been offered astronomical salaries which far outstrip anything they could earn even in the Premier League, the richest league on earth.

First there was Cristiano Ronaldo, who moved to Saudi side Al Nassr from Manchester United at the end of last year. His salary doubled to around £173 million, making him the highest paid athlete in the world. Then, at the start of this summer, reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema left Real Madrid for Al-Ittihad for a salary of £172 million. Lionel Messi, on course to win his eighth Ballon d’Or this year, was then reportedly offered £320 million a year to join the league, only to reject the opportunity. 

Now the man widely considered to be Messi’s successor as best in the world, Kylian Mbappé, has apparently been offered £600 million a year — six times what he is on at Paris Saint Germain, which already makes him comfortably the highest paid player in European football. 

The general reaction is that the whole spectacle is obscene, and disruptive to global football. The upshot is that really good European players — some of whom have spent the past few years exclaiming the importance of LGBTQ+ rights — are now choosing to move to a league where the standard is far worse, the competition far less esteemed, the clubs unknown, and the regime in charge among the most authoritarian and socially conservative on the planet. 

In a sense, the whole structure of European football is under attack. What if more players in their prime start leaving? What if people no longer care about Barcelona vs Real Madrid and start watching Al Nassr vs Al-Ittihad? What if the Champions League loses its lustre?

But like the Sherlock Holmes stories, what really hangs over this saga is the knowledge that we are the ones who started it. For years it has been considered perfectly normal for European clubs to buy up all the best young talent from Africa, Asia or South America; for teenagers to be lured to Europe with life-changing salaries. No-one questions this. 

More, not only did we go around the world buying up the best players, we then began inviting the world to invest in our leagues so that we could have even more money to buy even more players. And where did this money come from? Often from the Middle East. Qatar bought Paris Saint Germain, Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City, and Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle United. 

It wasn’t considered obscene when Newcastle tempted away AC Milan’s bright young Italian star Sandro Tonali, a boyhood Milan fan and potential future captain, because their Saudi money facilitated an offer that Milan couldn’t turn down. But now Saudi Arabian sides themselves are doing the same, we panic and condemn the greed on display.

Like the Edwardians over a century ago, we are up in arms about the threat to the old order that we created but now cannot control. We have taken football to the world and now the world is coming for our football. We can hardly complain.


Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

Now the man widely considered to be Messi’s successor as best in the world, Kylian Mbappé, has apparently been offered £600 million a year
This cannot continue. Every day I look around myself and see the signs of a civilization in an advanced state of decay. More than half a billion pounds, more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, to kick a ball around a football pitch. Words fail me.

Last edited 11 months ago by Right-Wing Hippie
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
11 months ago

“Every day I look around myself and see the signs of a civilization in an advanced state of decay.”
Because an outstanding athlete is being offered a lot of money?
Maybe you just need to calm down, dearie.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago

It’s more than ‘a lot of money’
Yes, you really are a ‘champagne socialist’

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago

It’s more than ‘a lot of money’
Yes, you really are a ‘champagne socialist’

Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
11 months ago

“Every day I look around myself and see the signs of a civilization in an advanced state of decay.”
Because an outstanding athlete is being offered a lot of money?
Maybe you just need to calm down, dearie.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

Now the man widely considered to be Messi’s successor as best in the world, Kylian Mbappé, has apparently been offered £600 million a year
This cannot continue. Every day I look around myself and see the signs of a civilization in an advanced state of decay. More than half a billion pounds, more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, to kick a ball around a football pitch. Words fail me.

Last edited 11 months ago by Right-Wing Hippie
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

I agree with the premise, and can admire the way the author illustrates it with the Sherlock Holmes story.
I’d argue that European football has already been corrupted. The “lustre of the Champions League” is itself a display of relative wealth, over and above footballing excellence; the two might well occur in tandem, but the exclusion of the “underdog” from the top European and domestic competitions (Leicester’s title win in 2016 being possibly the very last example) means that clubs seeking to break into those vaulted echelons increasingly put themselves at risk whilst the myriad of clubs with no chance of doing so find themselves increasingly at risk of bankruptcy. The game isn’t just about the top level, and it’s ruining much of the grass roots.
Once a footballer receives upwards of say, £10m per annum over a period of years, what possible additional benefit does it accrue to seek multiples of that amount, except for the sake of it? Losing the focus of European fans by playing in conditions not conducive to football is to lose something far more valuable, and whilst top footballers can get away with “kissing their badges” at some European giant of football, their mere presence on the pitch alone without any fervour attached in a Middle Eastern or Asian setting simply won’t attract viewers – their exploits would become essentially worthless.

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Didn’t the same thing happen in China a few years ago? Until the government changed its mind maybe the Saudis will get bored too and go onto something else still who would turn down enough money to not just change your life but your family’s life for generations!

Robbie K
Robbie K
11 months ago

Good call on the brief China spending phase, this seems to be similar just better funded. The comparison in the article with the EPL is wide of the mark because for players this is where they went to spend their best footballing years in the competitions that matter, so the attraction is far more than just money.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes, it’s a good point that I missed it out on my list (probably because it was so brief a period) of previous occurences of this kind of thing.
Incidentally, it was withheld for approval for some time.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 months ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes, it’s a good point that I missed it out on my list (probably because it was so brief a period) of previous occurences of this kind of thing.
Incidentally, it was withheld for approval for some time.

Robbie K
Robbie K
11 months ago

Good call on the brief China spending phase, this seems to be similar just better funded. The comparison in the article with the EPL is wide of the mark because for players this is where they went to spend their best footballing years in the competitions that matter, so the attraction is far more than just money.

polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“… their exploits would become essentially worthless.”
Not sure about that. Many Premier League clubs are foreign owned and most of their first team players are foreign, but their Brirish supporters still regard these clubs as theirs – Really? These supporters will attach themselves to a Saudi team readily enough.
When I were a lad, the West Ham players were all born within a bus ride of the ground – They were our team. Same for most clubs.

Last edited 11 months ago by polidori redux
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

It’s a fair point about mercenary fans, or “glory hunters” as we call them in the North West (e.g. local professional clubs going to the wall because their home-town fans prefer to watch Man Utd/City). Either that, or “armchair fans”.
When i were a lad, it wasn’t unknown to see a player on the same bus as fans on the way to the ground!
Still not sure the kind of passion generated in European stadia would translate to television audiences watching meaningless sterile football, however skilful the players.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Another historical reference might be the Harlem Globetrotters. No way did they attract any sense of ongoing passionate support.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I guess we’ll find out when we see who is willing to pay the TV subscription charges after the first year or two. I don’t see it becoming a commercial success (in Europe) or a PR triumph for Saudis.
.
However, I wonder if the IPL cricket setup provides any lessons …

Last edited 11 months ago by Ian Barton
Ian Barton
Ian Barton
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Another historical reference might be the Harlem Globetrotters. No way did they attract any sense of ongoing passionate support.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I guess we’ll find out when we see who is willing to pay the TV subscription charges after the first year or two. I don’t see it becoming a commercial success (in Europe) or a PR triumph for Saudis.
.
However, I wonder if the IPL cricket setup provides any lessons …

Last edited 11 months ago by Ian Barton
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  polidori redux

It’s a fair point about mercenary fans, or “glory hunters” as we call them in the North West (e.g. local professional clubs going to the wall because their home-town fans prefer to watch Man Utd/City). Either that, or “armchair fans”.
When i were a lad, it wasn’t unknown to see a player on the same bus as fans on the way to the ground!
Still not sure the kind of passion generated in European stadia would translate to television audiences watching meaningless sterile football, however skilful the players.

Robert Routledge
Robert Routledge
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Didn’t the same thing happen in China a few years ago? Until the government changed its mind maybe the Saudis will get bored too and go onto something else still who would turn down enough money to not just change your life but your family’s life for generations!

polidori redux
polidori redux
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

“… their exploits would become essentially worthless.”
Not sure about that. Many Premier League clubs are foreign owned and most of their first team players are foreign, but their Brirish supporters still regard these clubs as theirs – Really? These supporters will attach themselves to a Saudi team readily enough.
When I were a lad, the West Ham players were all born within a bus ride of the ground – They were our team. Same for most clubs.

Last edited 11 months ago by polidori redux
Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago

I agree with the premise, and can admire the way the author illustrates it with the Sherlock Holmes story.
I’d argue that European football has already been corrupted. The “lustre of the Champions League” is itself a display of relative wealth, over and above footballing excellence; the two might well occur in tandem, but the exclusion of the “underdog” from the top European and domestic competitions (Leicester’s title win in 2016 being possibly the very last example) means that clubs seeking to break into those vaulted echelons increasingly put themselves at risk whilst the myriad of clubs with no chance of doing so find themselves increasingly at risk of bankruptcy. The game isn’t just about the top level, and it’s ruining much of the grass roots.
Once a footballer receives upwards of say, £10m per annum over a period of years, what possible additional benefit does it accrue to seek multiples of that amount, except for the sake of it? Losing the focus of European fans by playing in conditions not conducive to football is to lose something far more valuable, and whilst top footballers can get away with “kissing their badges” at some European giant of football, their mere presence on the pitch alone without any fervour attached in a Middle Eastern or Asian setting simply won’t attract viewers – their exploits would become essentially worthless.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 months ago

As long as I’ve followed football (since the late eighties), people have complained about money in football and changes to the world order.

Italy in the 80s and 90s with money coming from the likes of Berlusconi. The premier league in the nineties with Man Utd and Spurs floated on the stock market and vast commerical ventures. The financial gambling of Leeds and Newcastle. Real Madrid being Madrid with the galacticos. Chelsea and then Man City being bought out by billionaires of dubious origin.

Whether justified or not, the moral panic of Saudi Arabia is not new.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

The…’suck it up,Europeans’ type of article about the Saudis is a real growth industry. I expect them to apply to have their teams in the Champions League, like Israeli teams can.
The Saudis identified insta type tourism (malls n’ stuff), culture and sport as the viable places to invest for the post-oil future(whenever that arrives) and they are going at it. Golf, Horse Racing, Cricket Football and Boxing have been identified as broadly spread sports and they have gone hard at these.
Getting past the progressive writers’ myopia with viewing everything through the prism of colonialism needs to happen sooner rather than later, it embeds error into their analyses about everything.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

The…’suck it up,Europeans’ type of article about the Saudis is a real growth industry. I expect them to apply to have their teams in the Champions League, like Israeli teams can.
The Saudis identified insta type tourism (malls n’ stuff), culture and sport as the viable places to invest for the post-oil future(whenever that arrives) and they are going at it. Golf, Horse Racing, Cricket Football and Boxing have been identified as broadly spread sports and they have gone hard at these.
Getting past the progressive writers’ myopia with viewing everything through the prism of colonialism needs to happen sooner rather than later, it embeds error into their analyses about everything.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
11 months ago

As long as I’ve followed football (since the late eighties), people have complained about money in football and changes to the world order.

Italy in the 80s and 90s with money coming from the likes of Berlusconi. The premier league in the nineties with Man Utd and Spurs floated on the stock market and vast commerical ventures. The financial gambling of Leeds and Newcastle. Real Madrid being Madrid with the galacticos. Chelsea and then Man City being bought out by billionaires of dubious origin.

Whether justified or not, the moral panic of Saudi Arabia is not new.

Chris Keating
Chris Keating
11 months ago

Good article. The colonialists have been bitten by the neo-colonialists. It’s ok while Europeans suck up the global talent but a different matter when the boot is on the other foot.
Clubs are just brands and marketing opportunities. The reason the players are so highly paid is that they attract the eyeballs to the screen and hence the advertising dollar.
It has been this way for a long time and since the Bosman ruling clubs have little ability to reflect their neighbourhoods . It once was all locals and as time has passed fewer and fewer locals and almost total ring-ins.
I lost interest when I realised that Gianfranco Zola, good player that he was, made my annual wage three times a week and I was in a high paying job, following his transfer to Chelsea. It was obscene then and is worse now. I was astonished when I went to Barcelona and noted that every fourth shop just sold Bracelona or Real Madrid kit.
The idea that in every league there are only a few sides that have a real chance of winning is also a negative factor and you can understand why fans select one of the contenders to support rather than their no-hoper local team.
The whole thing needs a rethink but that is not going to happen as money rules and spreading the glory is the last thing on the minds of those that pour in the cash. Sport is now just another extractive industry with the contents of your wallet being the target for extraction.

Chris Keating
Chris Keating
11 months ago

Good article. The colonialists have been bitten by the neo-colonialists. It’s ok while Europeans suck up the global talent but a different matter when the boot is on the other foot.
Clubs are just brands and marketing opportunities. The reason the players are so highly paid is that they attract the eyeballs to the screen and hence the advertising dollar.
It has been this way for a long time and since the Bosman ruling clubs have little ability to reflect their neighbourhoods . It once was all locals and as time has passed fewer and fewer locals and almost total ring-ins.
I lost interest when I realised that Gianfranco Zola, good player that he was, made my annual wage three times a week and I was in a high paying job, following his transfer to Chelsea. It was obscene then and is worse now. I was astonished when I went to Barcelona and noted that every fourth shop just sold Bracelona or Real Madrid kit.
The idea that in every league there are only a few sides that have a real chance of winning is also a negative factor and you can understand why fans select one of the contenders to support rather than their no-hoper local team.
The whole thing needs a rethink but that is not going to happen as money rules and spreading the glory is the last thing on the minds of those that pour in the cash. Sport is now just another extractive industry with the contents of your wallet being the target for extraction.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
11 months ago

So where have my comments from yesterday gone, big brother Unheard?