Saudi Arabia pays its way to soccer glory

Saudi Arabia pays to play

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The Future. Saudi Arabia is pouring billions of dollars into becoming soccer’s next big league, turning it into a worldwide media sensation and establishing a new arena of soft power. So far, its ambitions have been successful. But analysts believe the league’s legitimacy may rest in the hands of the sport’s newest superstar, France’s Kylian Mbappé, who has the chance to either choose a dizzyingly rich offer to join the Gulf Coast country or establish his legacy by staying in Europe.

Goal bank
Saudi Arabia is making some serious plays.

  • It has signed some of the most prominent players in the world, thanks to a seemingly unlimited bank account from its government-controlled Public Investment Fund (which took over the country’s top four soccer clubs).
  • So many players have signed with Saudi teams — including Cristiano Ronaldo with club Al-Nassr for $221 million per year — that ESPN created a “Saudi Arabia transfer tracker” page on its site that updates daily.
  • With all that star power, IMG, which is selling the league’s media rights, has made exhibition deals all around the globe… but at a bargain price that ensures maximum exposure to help leverage bigger deals for future seasons.

With all that wind in the Saudi Pro League’s sails, it would seem like the entire soccer ecosystem may have turned a blind eye to allegations that the country is using sports as a cover for well-documented human rights abuses (called “sports-washing”).

But two of the sports’ titans, Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, have rejected rich overtures from Saudi clubs. Messi turned down $400 million a year to join MLS’ Inter Miami, while Mbappé is reportedly snubbing club Al-Hilal’s $1.1 billion offer… refusing to even meet with club representatives.


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