So much more than a change: Lionel Messi goes to the USA and cancels Saudi Arabia. National efforts, a system clash and a turning point are brewing in the background. The world star and football doesn’t care – and the losers are already certain.
Lionel Messi continues his career at Inter Miami. Not in the Saudi Arabian league at Al-Hilal, which it looked like for a long time. So far, so simple. However, the decision for the USA and against the Kingdom on the Arabian peninsula does not mean a simple change of a footballer. It is a signal in the fight for sovereignty in football. A clash of systems. of cultures. The USA, whose league used to easily land the old stars from Beckenbauer to Beckham, fear that they will lose influence compared to Saudia Arabia or Qatar. And while Messi, at 35, is old compared to Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappé, he’s still the biggest name in football.
This case is therefore significant on several levels. One question that has hovered over Messi’s Saudi-or-US deal is: How strong is Joseph Nye’s famous concept of US soft power? How appealing is the American Dream lifestyle in the age of sheik and petrodollars? Messi has (for now) decided against going to the desert. Against a regime that kicks human rights like soccer balls.
But the myth of the “land of the free” and the myth of “from rags to riches” no longer has the same effect as it did in the 1980s, and not just since George W. Bush’s Iraq war and the global War on Terror. Since then, the West has been partly hated in the Near and Middle East. In football, too, he is increasingly being perceived there (see the World Cup in Qatar) as a personified, swinging moral club.
Saudi Arabia wants to hijack football
Back then, during the Cold War, the US, as a superpower, found it easy to use soft power as a means of spreading its political and ideological influence. Non-military means such as cinema, music and cultural interactions were instruments to indirectly exercise power over the masses in Europe, the USSR and other countries. It’s different today, it’s also about a different kind of influence. Also about football and of course money. What Hollywood was supposed to do in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, sport is now supposed to take over in the clash of systems. Messi becomes the pawn of economic and national efforts.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia wants to hijack football and is going head-to-head with the United States. The front line in this battle of systems can be traced in the English Premier League. That’s where all the capitalist ideas of football come together these days. The states, the investors and the classic owners of old English and American school. Manchester City is the sporting arm of Abu Dhabi, Qatar wants to incorporate Manchester United and Newcastle United is now owned by the Saudi Arabian government’s Public Investment Fund. Newcastle return to the Champions League next season after a two-decade absence, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are absent due to underspending on new players, according to fans.
The danger emanating from Saudi Arabia and the other states for other business models is only increased by the mix of capital and knowledge. At the front of the system battle, they not only rely on big names, but also big minds. This distinguishes them from, for example, China’s clumsy attempts to break into football. But that also distinguishes them from the bizarre investors like Lars Windhorst in German football.
So while they approach football with caution in England, they’re going for the big bang at home. As of this week, the four top clubs in the league are 75 percent owned by the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund PIF. The stars from Europe flock, follow Cristiano Ronaldo. money plays for the clubs – unlike for the stars – not important. The salary is also tax-free. The league aims to establish itself as one of the leading leagues in the world. This requires broad competition within the league in order to significantly increase the already existing quality of the league. Of course it’s about visibility in international football.
Apple pays Messi
But now the coup of the USA. For Messi himself, it is free market economics rather than any soft power that drives him to the US. In this case, it even has a name: it’s called Apple and has an even greater pull than any tax-free Saudi million. After stirring up the music industry, the tech empire is launching a major attack on sport and will also play a major role in the fight for TV rights for the 2026 World Cup. For 2022 alone, the company has made huge investments: $50 million annually for the NFL Super Bowl Halftime Show for the next 10 years and $85 million annually for the MLB baseball league’s Friday games. There are also talks about $ 2.5 billion for the broadcast rights of the NFL on Sunday (aborted) and about NBA streaming rights (still ongoing). Peanuts considering Apple made $12 billion in sales from Airpods alone in 2021.
And then of course there is the MLS. The football league in the USA has now caught up with the Big 4, the four largest sports of football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Soccer is growing in popularity in the States, with the growing Latino community celebrating the world’s most popular sport, which may soon overtake ice hockey in the States. This is what FIFA is aiming for when, in 2026, the really big circus with 48 teams will be visiting the USA, Mexico and Canada and the next pot of gold is to be dug up for the almighty boss Gianni Infantino. That’s what Messi is aiming for. That’s what Apple is aiming for.
The tech empire pays $250 million annually for Major League Soccer streaming rights to AppleTV+. Two and a half billion total. Messi wants a slice of that. He is now involved in the income from the streaming service – and thus paid not only by his club Inter Miami, but also by Apple.
Messi’s move will mark a kind of economic turning point in football. What has been en vogue in US sports for a long time (see basketball player Michael Jordan, who has built up the Jordan brand with Nike since joining the NBA) is only just developing at Messi and Co.: the interlocking of athletes and companies. Of course, footballers have long been sponsored by Nike, Adidas and Co., but this is about shares and bets on revenue models. Stock options instead of cash.
The Champions League is also crumbling
In just a few days, the landscape of world football has changed on several levels. The Eurocentric age is finally over, even if European minds don’t want to believe it. This could already be seen at the desert world championships in Qatar. She changed football. It has shown that the football system is no longer dependent on the top European leagues. They are still the beacons of world sport, only surpassed by the UEFA Champions League.
But it is precisely at this Champions League that the inexhaustible capital from Saudi Arabia is tugging and tearing. They don’t care about their partners. Apparently they are much more concerned with destroying the most successful product in club football. As “The Independent” reports, the kingdom was already behind two attacks on the premier class. In 2020, Saudi Arabia is said to have provided the financial backing for a new version of the FIFA Club World Cup. When the pandemic ate through the money reserves of the super clubs a little later, the kingdom is said to have played a decisive role in the foundation of the Super League, which ultimately failed with a crash.
Football knew how to defend itself back then. Not the part of the game that has long since declared moral bankruptcy, but the one that represents the game’s greatest asset. It’s the part that ensures the game is carried from generation to generation and at the same time creates the emotional moments – the supporters of the clubs. Fans even took to the streets in England, stopping the league before it could even catch its breath.
It will not stop at these failed attempts. Soccer, the greatest sport in the world, may be the never-ending entertainment machine. However, the kingdom has long relied on a wide-ranging portfolio. The key moment was well over three years ago. The boxing heavyweight title bout between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. in December 2019 shone the green-favorable light of sportswashing on Saudi Arabia for the first time. Everything was laid out in this fight. The images of triumph, the money, the cleansing of those who threw the millions around. Below, the Briton defended his title and from above, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looked down on the crowd. The assassination of publicist Jamal Khashoggi, attributed to Bin Salman’s orders, was just a year ago.
Messi: Saudi ambassador to the US
Other sports followed: basketball, Formula 1, eSports, snooker, tennis and equestrian sports, and just this week golf, now effectively owned by Saudi Arabia. Part of the country’s strategy: the masses must be entertained. Cost what it may. The country’s young population, 70 percent are under 35, thirst for events.
National Efforts. Clash of systems. turning point. Lionel Messi is known for superlatives and also triggers an earthquake this summer. His decision in favor of the USA will not have been all that spontaneous, after all Apple announced a four-part documentary series about the Argentine superstar on Tuesday. It seems very orchestrated and planned well in advance. Just like it is in the football business these days.
Although Messi prevented the Saudi double coup with Ronaldo, he certainly did not position himself against the regime around bin Salman. That also fits with the kickers of today. The new US star prefers to play both sides as a border crosser. After all, Messi already has business relations with Saudi Arabia, working for the kingdom as a tourism ambassador.
Meanwhile, Europe is watching and must find answers. Otherwise not only the top stars will disappear, but also the last European values along with the money. Football doesn’t care. He has already proven that in Qatar: apart from a few annoyed Europeans, everyone had fun there.