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After stocking up on stars, Saudi Arabia starts its most ambitious season

Yasser Bakhsh / Getty Images Sport / Getty

GENEVA (AP) — The Saudi Arabian soccer league kicks off Friday after a spending spree on big-name players grabbed the world’s attention during the European summer offseason.

Hundreds of millions of dollars from the kingdom’s vast oil wealth were spent to supercharge the state-backed Saudi Pro League’s ambitions of being a global player. About a billion more in salaries were turned down by Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé, who rejected offers to join the exodus.

Now the actual games start and the appeal of watching Champions League winners like Karim Benzema, Sadio Mané and Riyad Mahrez — who have followed the January trailblazer Cristiano Ronaldo — in unfamiliar surroundings will be tested.

The league announced Wednesday a slate of broadcast deals in more than 130 markets worldwide, but that did not include the United States.

“The watching world can now enjoy front row seats as Saudi football transforms,” said the league’s interim chief executive, Saad Allazeez.

Three of the nine games in each round will be shown in Britain and Germany on the platforms of subscription streaming service DAZN, by French pay-TV network Canal+ and across five different outlets in China, including Tencent.

In North America, DAZN has the rights in Canada and Azteca in Mexico. Global news packages will be provided by London-based SNTV, a joint venture between The Associated Press and the IMG agency which exclusively managed broadcast sales for the next two seasons.

Luring Ronaldo in January to the Al Nassr club was a clear statement of intent by the league, even though he would soon turn 38. It also seemed an opportunistic outlier after the Portugal star’s public split with Manchester United weeks earlier on the eve of the World Cup.

The seismic shift in soccer’s power game became clearer in early June when Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner as the world’s best player, decided to leave Real Madrid after 14 stellar years.

The story dominated the final weekend of games in Europe’s national leagues and hinted at the full scope of the Saudi domestic soccer project revealed the next day.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF), which oversees $700 billion of Saudi sovereign wealth, said it was taking majority ownership stakes in four of the top domestic clubs. It effectively nationalized clubs in the biggest cities, Riyadh and Jeddah: Al Nassr, Benzema’s Al Ittihad, Al Hilal — the Asian Champions League winner in 2019 and 2021 which pursued Messi and Mbappé — and Al Ahli.

“The Saudi Pro League … will be supported in its ambition to be amongst the top ten leagues in the world,” the national press agency announced in a news release.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who chairs the PIF, has pushed its huge investments in global sports that aim to diversify the Saudi oil economy by 2030. It is also viewed by many as sportswashing to rebrand his image and the kingdom’s.

While PIF cannot yet buy the the same level of influence in soccer that it now has in golf, it has similarly signed up players — not all of them nearing the end of their careers — with transfer fees and salaries not on offer elsewhere.

The biggest transfer fees paid, up to $60 million, have been for lower-tier talent now at Al Hilal: Malcom from Zenit St. Petersburg, Rúben Neves from Wolverhampton, and Sergej Milinković-Savić from Lazio. For now, the English Premier League and Champions League organizer UEFA insist they see no threat.

Ronaldo is reportedly getting a $200 million salary and Benzema more than $100 million. Both were true marquee signings as free agents, but the league has yet to attract top-level coaches.

Steven Gerrard agreed to coach Ettifaq after his reputation took a hit when he was fired by Aston Villa last year, and he had first rebuffed the Saudi offer. Abha hired former Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz, whose national team contract was not renewed after a lackluster World Cup.

Former Croatia and West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was hired by Al Fateh last month, returning to the country after an initial five-month spell in the Saudi league ended in 2019 when he was fired by Al Ittihad. A FIFA judge later awarded Bilic a $15 million salary settlement in a case the club disputed.

The attraction is not just money. Benzema, Mané and Mahrez cite the importance of playing in a country of Muslim faith.

“My mum is Muslim like me,” Mané said this week. “She was the first to vote for me to go there and my whole family was excited for me to come here so it was not hard.”

Mané is among four recruits from Liverpool’s 2019 Champions League winning team, joining Roberto Firmino, Fabinho and captain Jordan Henderson, the most criticized because of his past support for the LGBTQ+ community. Same-sex relations are criminalized in Saudi Arabia.

At a league event this week, Henderson said he is still adapting to the Saudi climate.

“The heat has been hard and it has been tough trying to adjust, but training has been good,” he said. “I enjoyed it and I’ve been trying to embrace this different experience and culture and way of living and playing football.”

Temperatures of 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) are forecast around the 6 p.m. kickoff time for three of the nine games this weekend.

Henderson and the Gerrard-coached Ettifaq team have a 9 p.m. kickoff Monday when they host Ronaldo and Al Nassr.

The opening game Friday sees Al-Ahli host Al-Hazm in a 9 p.m. kickoff that should finish minutes before the Premier League starts with champion Manchester City playing at Burnley.

The Al Ahli game should mean debuts for Mahrez, Firmino and Edouard Mendy, the former Chelsea goalkeeper.

In Saudi Arabia, the revamped league is also a stage for homegrown talent to build on that stunning 2-1 win at the World Cup over Messi and eventual champion Argentina.

“Yes, we want a league to be proud, to entertain local fans and the world” Saudi Arabian Football Federation president Yasser Al Misehal said, “but it has to serve the ambitions of the national team now and in the future.”


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