by Guido Vaciago (Tuttosport)

The growth of the Saudi League, therefore, is not the eccentric desire of a sheikh but a key step in a broader and more significant strategy for the country’s future. That’s why it’s not possible to label it as “a bubble like China a few years ago,” as hastily done by Aleksander Čeferin, the UEFA president. The Saudi League project has a ten-year plan at its core and sufficient resources to implement it. Certainly, it’s not a sustainable plan because spending the figures invested so far to attract champions and strong players can never be covered by revenues. The league that sells its TV rights the best, at this historical moment, is the Premier League, which earns around 6 billion per season. Assuming that the Saudi League could reach the same figure in revenue within a decade, the costs incurred until that point would have already dug a rather deep hole, and if the wage level of the league is what we’ve come to know this summer, that money wouldn’t be enough to balance the books. But this is not the Saudis’ problem, at least not in the medium term: the money spent in football is an investment to trigger others that are even more important; sustainability is a concept for the future at most. Moreover, if indeed the football landscape were to shift towards the Middle East and the Saudi League became a sort of NBA, then in the long run, the finances could also make sense. But right now, that’s not the Saudis’ concern; their goal is to become the NBA of football.

Will they succeed? It may sound strange to say so in this historical moment, but money isn’t everything, even in football. The factors that contribute to the success of a league are linked not only to the presence of champions but also to the history of the brands, the fame of the clubs. Even without Messi and Ronaldo, Real Madrid-Barcelona will always be a match capable of capturing the attention of football fans worldwide. While Al Hilal-Ittihad struggles to capture the imagination, even if the teams include the most important players on the planet. In this case too, however, it’s fair to ask: for how long? The younger generations are increasingly attaching their football passion to individual stars (thanks also to social networks, the most effective and pervasive media for those born after 2000), and as a result, they might not care that much about the jersey worn by their favorite player. If Haaland ended up in Saudi Arabia, they would follow him there. The increasingly blurred concept of team loyalty and support could, therefore, play remarkably into the hands of those with the financial means to attract the most popular champions, disregarding tradition and fans of older generations. The heart of the matter is, therefore, how long the Saudi League must continue spending much more than it earns before there’s such a massive generational shift that redirects passion towards the East.

In the meantime, the massive investments made to acquire players from Europe could paradoxically help European football. However, the risk is ending up like Third World countries that sell their raw materials to wealthier ones to sustain their disastrous economies, a mechanism that ends up further impoverishing them. In the short term, selling a midfielder for €50 million who is worth €30 million might balance the books, but by continually parting with prized assets, what will be the value of Italian, Spanish, or French football? If today Serie A already struggles to sell its TV rights (and will be content if the decrease in revenue compared to the previous contract is only around 10%), the risk is that the next bidding round will be even less lucrative. Consequently, clubs will have even fewer resources to pay their champions and will need to sell their players to the Arabs, but at even lower figures. An apocalyptic scenario, but not too far-fetched when you analyze the current situation and project it into a near future of four or five years.

The only ones capable of countering the Arabs are the English, who, in the span of thirty years, have created an almost perfect global product, capitalizing on the rich tradition of their brands, the universality of their language, and the ability of their clubs to work together, which has solidified the Premier League over time and transformed it into the most important league on the planet. Moreover, in the last decade, their ability to attract champions has certainly exceeded what the Arabs are currently implementing. The English also have a cautious way of raising the technical level of their league by acquiring top players from abroad and ensuring that a significant portion of the immense sums spent by their transfer market remains within the system. When two English clubs finalize a €120 million deal, that money stays in circulation, nourishing the widespread prosperity of the movement and creating an economic barrier against Arab offers. Good for the English, but what about the rest of Europe?

The European Union, from which the United Kingdom is no longer a part, risks seeing a €10 billion-per-year business and a shared cultural value like football wither away. The tradition of historic clubs is potentially immortal, and today a fan of Juventus, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or even Ajax or Sporting Lisbon can calmly state that they don’t care about champions and Arabs, and they will always follow their heart’s team. But the movement is destined to become poorer, and the passion could lose some of its essence. In the world of global communication and major streaming platforms, there won’t be space (and money) for all the leagues, but the major tournaments will absorb the vast majority of resources. Which ones will they be? The Premier League or the Saudi League? At the moment, for example, the greatest economic drain in world football is the Champions League, which for some was “the people’s football,” but it ended up enriching only a few and creating a huge gap within the European system. Tomorrow, that very mechanism could become its victim. Quite a blow to the people.

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