With Ronaldo, Benzema and Co.: Newcastle owners grab the best Saudi clubs

With Ronaldo, Benzema and Co.
Newcastle owner grabs top Saudi clubs

Saudi Arabia attack big in football. The country, which is controversial because of its handling of human rights, is reaching for the World Cup and building up the domestic league. Cristiano Ronaldo is already there, more superstars are to follow. For this, the best clubs become companies – under one roof.

Will Newcastle United soon have access to aging football superstars Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and maybe even Lionel Messi? The Premier League club has qualified for the Champions League for the first time in 21 years – also thanks to the millions of new owners, behind whom 80 percent of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF) is. In the new Forbes list of the most valuable football clubs in the world, Newcastle climbs to number 22. Within a year they have doubled their market value to around 750 million euros. And the attack on world football continues for the PIF.

Now in your own country. The PIF takes over the four leading clubs of the Saudi Arabian professional league. These include Al-Nassr, where Cristiano Ronaldo has been playing since the winter, and Al-Ittihad, who are in the process of signing long-time Real star Karim Benzema. In addition, the sovereign wealth fund also takes over 75 percent of the shares in the reigning Asian champions Al-Hilal, who is rumored to be digging up world footballer Lionel Messi, and Al-Ahli. 25 percent of the shares of all four clubs are to be transferred to charitable foundations of the Saudi Ministry of Sports, which previously completely owned the clubs but were not controlled by it.

More stars are to follow

In the major leagues of the world, such as the Bundesliga, Premier League and also LaLiga, it is forbidden for several clubs to take part in the same competition. The Red Bull teams RB Leipzig and FC Salzburg therefore had restrictions imposed by UEFA. These had to prove differences in their organizational structure in order to be able to take part in the European competitions at the same time. In Saudi Arabia, however, there are no such hurdles, so all four clubs can be owned by the same majority shareholder.

For their part, the owners emphasize that each club will have an independent board and management. However, it is questionable how much influence is exerted in the background. In any case, the clubs will be transformed into companies with the takeover. They should become more attractive for international stars.

According to AFP, offers have already been made for national players such as Luka Modrić, N’Golo Kante, Roberto Firmino and Hugo Lloris. Other candidates are Sergio Ramos, Ángel Di María, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets. Names that would have been unthinkable in Saudi Arabia just a few months ago – until Ronaldo got the ball rolling in January with his move to Al-Nassr.

In recent years, the Saudi royal family has been particularly bothered by the fact that Qatar, of all countries, has overtaken its big neighbors in international sports politics. That should change now that the World Cup in Qatar is history. For its part, Saudi Arabia is eager to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup – along with Greece and Egypt.

Crown Prince bin Salman also promised to put the Saudi Pro League among the top ten in the world. Superstar Ronaldo can imagine even more ambitious goals. “In my opinion, if they continue the work, in five years the Saudi league can be among the top five leagues in the world,” said the Portuguese, who says he will play another year for Al-Nassr.

Sportswashing now also in football

Ronaldo’s 200 million a year should be significantly topped by Messi, who is already a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia. For Benzema, the prospect of €100m a year seems more appealing than more title chances with Real Madrid.

The superstars don’t seem to worry about their image when they move to Saudi Arabia. Critics accuse the country of wanting to polish its own reputation with its involvement in professional sports. Under bin Salman, the conservative kingdom opened up socially and granted more freedom to women, for example. At the same time, opponents of the government continue to be persecuted with all severity. US intelligence services also hold the crown prince responsible for the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the government, at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

Should the stars actually all move to Saudi Arabia, they would probably be divided between the four clubs now belonging to the PIF and a fifth, Al-Shabab. The Saudi Pro League will be expanded to 18 teams next season, with each club allowed to field up to eight foreign players.

Just a few hours after his move to Al-Nassr, there were reports from the Spanish sports newspaper “Marca” about a special clause in Ronaldo’s contract, according to which the Portuguese could play in the Champions League if Newcastle qualify. Even then, a source for Al-Nassr called the report “completely false” – and given the current developments, it wouldn’t make much sense either.

Because with Newcastle United, Saudi Arabia has launched and reported on a very successful project internationally, with the push of their own league new beacons are added. Because whether it’s primarily about the sport or rather about polishing up the bad image is probably quite easy to answer. Sportswashing is already happening with Formula 1 races, golf tournaments and boxing title fights. But football attracts the greatest attention – no matter what the cost. And for that, the superstars have to come to the country and not play in another league.

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