Andalucian soccer team Unión Deportiva Almería earned a promotion to LaLiga, Spain’s top soccer league on Sunday night.
It took seven years for Almería to return to the first division, a move many in the league credit to team’s new owner, Saudi Arabian sheik Turki bin Abdul Mohsen bin Abdul Latif Al Al-Sheikh, the former minister of sport and current chairman of the General Authority of Entertainment of Saudi Arabia.
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Al-Sheikh bought the Spanish club two years ago for approximately $20 million. Since then, he’s spent another $30 million to improve the squad, including $19 million on Nigerian forward Umar Sadiq, and $4 million each on Samú Costa, a Portuguese midfielder, Alejandro Pozo, a Spanish right-wing, Lucas Robertone, an Argentine midfielder, and Sergio Akiame, a left-back.
The sheik used his sway to get seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi and others to come watch a match with him last November, prompting a viral video that delivered Almeria’s social media presence. Flair for publicity extended to the streets: in 2020, the club raffled a dozen Audi A1s to season ticket buyers in order to drive crowds to Almeria’s stadium.
It’s unclear if Al-Sheikh is using his own money on the club or if the Saudi state is involved.
“If this is backed by the Saudi government, why did I come to Almería?” Mohammed El Assy, the chief executive of Almería told Spanish media in 2020. “If Abu Dhabi has Man City and Qatar has Paris Saint-Germain, Saudi Arabia would not go buy Almeria in the second division in Spain.”
Almería is not the Saudi investor’s first foray into soccer. In 2018 Al-Sheikh bought an Egyptian club called Alassiouty Sport. He spent millions of dollars to revamp the squad, rebranded the club as Pyramid FC and sold it after two seasons when the club finished third.
In Spain, however, Al-Sheikh’s financial contributions have been limited by LaLiga’s tight spending controls. Last season, Al-Sheikh wanted to bring new sponsors from Saudi Arabia, but LaLiga did not allow the move, claiming the amounts of the contracts did not correspond to the value of a second division team.
Almería’s promotion will put pressure on mid- to lower-level first division teams. Almería is in a position of financial strength and will now be allowed to spend 65% (up to $35.8 million) of its income on player salaries next season. According to Transfermarkt.com, Almeria has the most expensive team in the second division, with the value of its 23 players totaling $63 million.
“Following Newcastle United’s late season success in the English Premier League and now UD Almeria’s promotion to Spain’s LaLiga, there will be two Saudi Arabian owned clubs in European soccer’s two biggest leagues,” Simon Chadwick director of the Centre for Eurasian Sport of EMLyon Business School told Sportico in a phone interview. “Some will assess this as being immediate evidence of a return on Saudi Arabia’s investments in football, others will see it as an insidious example of sport washing. However, it remains to be established what links there are between Almeria and United.”
While happy Almeria supporters took to the streets of town to celebrate their long-awaited promotion, Al-Sheikh has three months to renovate the 15,000-seat municipal stadium and bring it up to LaLiga’s first division standards. While he has to respect LaLiga’s salary cap, Al-Sheikh is expected to pursue star transfers. In 2019, he jokingly invited Messi to play for Almería; perhaps the Argentine is the card the Sheikh has been hiding up his sleeve.
(This story has updated the headline and details in the fourth paragraph.)