Behind the Saudi attempt to dominate world football

Behind the Saudi attempt to dominate world football
The Saudi Pro League is not lacking in big names

It is almost a year since the Saudi football authorities, its Ministry of Sport and the sovereign wealth fund, announced a plan to not only transform the sport in the kingdom but, by doing so, challenge its global balance of power.

The Public Investment Fund – which already owns Newcastle United - took control of the four biggest clubs: Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad and there is talk of more. The intent? To spend hundreds of millions of pounds to buy the biggest stars. To buy a whole new league – and do it as quickly as possible. They talk of wanting to be a “top 10” league in the world; then in the same breath say “top five” and “top three”. But clearly the ambition is to be number one.

In Dammam on the Persian Gulf, where Al-Ettifaq are based, Steven Gerrard is clear. “I knew they were going to be extremely ambitious,” the head coach says. “A lot of big-name footballers were coming to the league. There is the ambition to get there fast.”

Gerrard, with whom a full exclusive interview will be published by Telegraph Sport on Wednesday, adds: “The change in this league from 12 months ago, I have felt it. It has improved immensely. If that continues then I believe this will get closer to the top and I want to be part of that.”

One of his players is Scotland defender Jack Hendry who emphatically denies he only came to Saudi last year for the money. It is a question everyone who moves here must answer.

“Certainly not,” the 29-year-old says. “I want to succeed in life. I want to do well and win things and I have done that at my previous clubs – at Celtic, at Club Bruges. I have played Champions League football... Look, if people are going to financially gain out of that then that’s in their own motives but, it’s definitely not a league to come out here, sit back and put your feet up.”

Other players have contacted Hendry, asking him what it is like. “I don’t know what your experience has been but everyone is very friendly, very accommodating. Until you are out here you might not see that,” he argues. “Obviously, I don’t know, the British press like to put stuff down but I can certainly say it’s a very good lifestyle.”

So that is his experience.

From his office in Riyadh, the league’s chief football executive Michael Emenalo talks in measured tones about the need to grow football “organically”, about infrastructure and developing young players, “our own players”, and of getting “certain pillars” in place. But then he says: “This is a country in a hurry and that urgency is evident in the intentions of the Saudi Pro-League.”

Just over 200 miles away, in the desert of the Eastern Province and the city of Al-Ahsa, home to the world’s largest oasis, Slaven Bilic puts it even more bluntly. “This is not a toy for a couple of Sheikhs,” the Croatian head coach of the Al-Fateh club says.

Slaven Bilic first managed in Saudi Arabia in 2018, before returning in 2023 with Al-Fateh
Slaven Bilic first managed in Saudi Arabia in 2018, before returning in 2023 with Al-Fateh

And so Telegraph Sport has spent a week travelling across Saudi Arabia to find out what the SPL is like, what its ambitions are and whether this was just another attempt by the kingdom’s autocratic leaders to launder reputations and change the image of a country – which will host the 2034 World Cup after being the sole bidder - without improving its abysmal human rights record.

And the foreign players arrived.

By the end of August, 94 were signed at a cost of £767million in transfer fees alone – second only to the Premier League. But that total did not include the utterly extraordinary wages and incentives on offer and it would have been far, far higher had Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe signed – with Al-Hilal (who later bought Neymar instead) submitting a world record bid of £260million for the French striker, with wages of £173million. For, potentially, a one-year contract.

Neymar leads the celebrations after Al Hilal won the Saudi Pro League with three games to spare
Neymar leads the celebrations after Al Hilal won the Saudi Pro League with three games to spare - Getty Images/Yasser Bakhsh

Al-Ittihad signed the Ballon D’Or holder Karim Benzema, shocking Real Madrid, and still offered Liverpool £150million for Mohammed Salah.

“I think we went for it because it was the reasonable and practical thing to do. There was a window of opportunity,” Emenalo, the former Chelsea and Monaco technical director, says. “We wanted to have an impact in presenting the ambition of the kingdom and the league to the world. I think we did that.”

They certainly did, although the Saudis argue that the window was a one-off and will not be repeated this summer with Emenalo admitting they had paid “some unnecessary mark-ups” on transfers to make “the requisite progress”. They talk about a more “professional” approach.

But football – as it always has done, as it did when the Premier League became the richest in the world – follows the money and agents, players and managers believe the spending will continue: not least because the SPL is unburdened by the Financial Fair Play regulations faced by European clubs and crucially needs to continue to make a stir if it is to grow, attract sponsors, sign TV deals. Money is its weapon and its power.

“The impact that we want to make, the noise, the attraction that we need is that someone comes in and they can bring an added value on the pitch to the product,” Emenalo says.

He argues that “this is not a wanton, no care in the world expense mechanism” with money “carefully managed” and the Saudis say part of the reasoning behind the PIF ownership is to run the clubs more efficiently. But the reality is there is no limit to spending.

Which brings us to the question of laundering a global reputation.

That is, without avoiding the issue, difficult to prosecute on the ground but must be addressed. This is a country where even tweeting something critical can result in a jail sentence.

Out here that is played down. There is talk of tolerance, of reform and liberalisation, of even “turning a blind eye” to things which are outlawed. There is some evidence of that but it frankly is a ridiculous argument.

The week before I arrive a young woman, Manahel al-Otaibi, was sentenced to 11 years in prison by an anti-terrorism court after being arrested for “her choice of clothing and support for women’s rights”. She posted Snapchat photos of herself out shopping, wearing dungarees. In theory, therefore, even asking players or coaches or staff to comment publicly about Saudi’s record, about the fact homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death, could also land them in jail.

Clear desire for growth but standards and culture still lacking

It is Monday night, match night, and the games do not come much bigger than Al-Ahli hosting league leaders Al-Hilal. It is also still 30 degrees Celsius inside the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, even though the time has ticked beyond the scheduled 9pm kick off which is delayed for the smoke from pyrotechnics to clear.

There are regular drinks breaks with iced towels placed over the shoulders of players such as Ruben Neves.

The former Wolverhampton Wanderers midfielder is one of several stars poached – or off-loaded – from the Premier League. For Al-Ahli there is Edouard Mendy, Roberto Firmino, Riyad Mahrez and Allan Saint-Maximin. In truth Firmino, their captain, is a shadow of his former self while Al-Hilal’s attack is powerfully led by Aleksandar Mitrovic, with Neves and Kalidou Koulibaly in the team.

The standard? The heat is undoubtedly a huge factor. It is appreciably slower and is at least a notch below the Premier League. Despite the star names it is mid-Championship, at best.

Officially the game is sold out but there are swathes of empty seats inside the 60,000-capacity arena – partly, it is claimed, because the date of the fixture was changed. However, there is no denying the atmosphere is lively with the Al-Ahli hardcore stationed either side of the half-way line.

Al-Hilal are Saudi’s most followed team; Al-Ahli have the most passionate fans. Both sets of supporters unfurl the world’s most polite tifos, written in English, which read “we will always be behind you” and “forever we will be together”.

It also must be said there are a lot of women, many wearing blue or green scarves over their abayas.

Women were only allowed into stadiums less than six years ago and just two years ago schoolgirls were encouraged to play football. Now 70,000 do and the Saudis have started a professional women’s league, the first to be televised in the region, to which they also want to attract more overseas stars. There have been positive steps to give women more freedom but there is such a long way to go.

Female Al Hilal fans watch their team in action at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium
Female Al Hilal fans watch their team in action at the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Stadium - Reuters

After 30 minutes Al-Ahli take a surprise lead with goalkeeper Yassine Bounou spilling a shot from Saint-Maximin. The rebound is tucked home by Firas Al Brikan – the promising 23-year-old Saudi striker who started the season with Al-Fateh but was sold to Al-Ahli, with the £8.5million release clause in his contract activated after he starred against them in an embarrassing 5-1 defeat. It showed the power the PIF clubs wield. “That’s true but you have so many examples in England that are the same,” Bilic says.

The lead does not last. There is a relentlessness about unbeaten Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli pay for not taking their chances with Mitrovic heading in Malcom’s cross and Malcom, the Brazilian former Barcelona winger, scoring a 90th minute solo goal to win it and effectively seal the title.

None of the players stop in the mixed zone afterwards with Mitrovic laughing off a request and Neves hiding behind him. A few are successfully asked for ‘selfies’. There is, obviously, no real culture of sports journalism with some ‘journalists’ doubling up with day jobs including as Uber drivers. Foreign reporters – unless they have a prior appointment and have been vetted – are not allowed while the SPL, despite its desire to grow the league, does not compel the players to talk.

Al Hilal's Aleksandar Mitrovic is second to Cristiano Ronaldo in the goal-scoring charts this season

For obvious reasons. Questions beyond football are barred. The players live in an even more hermetically sealed environment than the Premier League and will return to their luxury ’compounds’.

One of those who walks through is the young Spanish midfielder Gabri Veiga, who is injured. After the 21-year-old signed for Al-Ahli, Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos posted that it was “embarrassing” and later declared he would never move to Saudi because of its human rights record.

Question marks remain over societal changes

Which brings us to “sportswashing”. There is a clip on the internet of Emenalo being caught on a ‘hot mic’ and reacting angrily after being repeatedly questioned by a Swedish television crew. “I understand it. I understand that it is an opportunity to slip in something that the news media considers to be worthy of discussion. I completely understand that,” Emenalo protests to Telegraph Sport before adding it is “disrespectful” and a “little unfair” to constantly go to him with such questions.

But the Saudis will not comment.

Instead Emenalo points to a 1,200-page “project plan” that was drawn up by Deloitte and handed to him by SPL vice-chairman Saad Al-Lazeez when he was hired last July. “I cannot answer these questions because in that plan there was not one mention of ‘this is why we’re doing this’,” he argues, unconvincingly.

“From every conversation that I’ve had, from every discussion, from everything that I’ve seen, this is a very young nation with a young population that needs to be active, that wants to be entertained, that needs to grow the next phase of its leadership in different areas. And what is happening in football is happening in golf but it’s also happening in real estate and it’s happening in all the other parts of business. And just to categorise that and to put people on the spot constantly to answer a question that you know you definitely have zero connection to answer… I was a little bit exasperated and that’s what came out.”

Michael Emenalo, former Chelsea and Monaco technical director, is now chief football executive for the Saudi league
Michael Emenalo, former Chelsea and Monaco technical director, is now chief football executive for the Saudi league

Zero connection? Well, it is certainly worth contesting.

Emenalo adds that he is not a “spokesman” before arguing: “If you go to every country that has a league there are questions that you can decide, political questions that you can decide to make the centre of every discussion, every sporting discussion. Whether it is in Italy or Spain or England. “And if people are not satisfied with the answers they have they are coming to me in my role, which is not a role that has anything to do with this, to ask the same questions.”

Amnesty International are certainly not satisfied. Their concern is that investment in sport is not being carried out alongside improving human rights, including workers’ rights and respecting freedom of expression. They rightly argue sport should help drive change while the Saudis claim that change is already happening under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS and they talk about “pre” and “post” MBS) as part of the Vision 2030 plan – which included the purchase of Newcastle - to move the kingdom away from its financial dependence on oil and also modernise. They argue that Saudi Arabia is opening up.

And life has changed. In theory, women can go out with their hair uncovered, can drive cars - Saudi became the last country in the world to allow this in 2018 - can sit with their friends in outlets such as Joe and The Juice in Al-Khobar, where I stay to see Bilic and Gerrard.

Saudi society does feel, generally, more easy-going. But how real is that? The danger is you get sucked in. There is a veneer for the well-heeled and the westerners. At the same time, let’s not forget, US intelligence agencies concluded that ‘MBS’ approved the operation to murder and dismember the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the consulate in Istanbul in 2018. That was six years ago. But in Sept 2023 the official Saudi Press Agency announced that 100 people had been executed so far that year leading Amnesty to call it a “killing spree”.

A different atmosphere and fan experience

It is Friday and match night again, back at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City where Gerrard’s Al-Ettifaq are taking on Al-Ittihad. The latter are without Benzema and Fabinho but include N’Golo Kante who, frankly, looks a little lost.

If anything it is even hotter. “It was like an oven out there,” Hendry later says.

But the atmosphere is very different. At kick-off there cannot be more than 6,000 fans in the stadium – although it does fill out a little later and the generous official attendance is put at 13,000 – with a small pocket of Al-Ettifaq fans behind one goal. They are local and have not travelled the 800 miles from Dammam and they unfurl a “You’ll Never Walk Alone” banner in Gerrard’s honour.

In January, Steven Gerrard signed a two-year extension to stay as Al-Ettifaq head coach until 2027
In January, Steven Gerrard signed a two-year extension to stay as Al-Ettifaq head coach until 2027 - Getty Images/Yasser Bakhsh

Strangely, neither set of fans break from their rhythmic chanting and singing, the banging of drums and playing of instruments, to celebrate or be stunned by a brilliant opening goal from former Manchester City midfielder Seko Fofana.

It is as if their job is to just make some noise and certainly these games are only really meant for TV and selling abroad. By half-time Al-Ettifaq are 4-0 up and it is the same for each of their goals, including a penalty from former Fulham striker Moussa Dembele. Eventually, after the fourth, the Al-Ittihad fans suddenly do just give up. Well, their team has also.

As the players walk off, a handful of Al-Ittihad fans rush to the top of the tunnel to abuse them. As with the previous game a car is given away to a fortunate supporter in a random draw. By full-time it is 5-0, with a hat-trick from Cameroon international Karl Toko Ekambi and Gerrard’s biggest win of the season, with Al-Ittihad’s Argentinian coach Marcelo Gallardo muttering “bad, bad, bad” in Spanish as he leaves the mixed zone.

“I am challenging myself against some of the best attackers in the world,” a delighted Hendry says. “I am playing against the likes of Benzema, Mitrovic, Ronaldo, Mane, Mahrez. Top tests. Even with the small teams, the foreigner spots are filled with very good attackers.”

Al-Ittihad are expected to be one of the busiest clubs in the summer and it is easy to see why. If they want to sign a star player – such as Salah – they can negotiate themselves but Emenalo and his department review the terms and carry out so-called ‘squad mapping’, before approving it through what is known as PACE (Player Acquisition Centre of Excellence).

“No longer can you go out and willy-nilly buy players,” a source claims. “They say they want a player and Michael and his team see whether it is the right player.” There is also an insistence that players sign longer, ideally three-year, deals but suddenly that also locks the Saudis into even more expensive contracts with some signings having under-performed.

From next season the number of foreign players allowed in each team rises from eight to 10, although two must be Under-21 players. This is partly to continue to bring down the average age, which has fallen from 29 to 27, but also to develop players that can be sold to other Saudi clubs but also other leagues.

“It will anchor the product for the future,” Emenalo argues and is, he says, another sign that the Saudis mean business.

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