Saudi Arabia’s spending spree on top-flight footballers has instantly turned it into one of the game’s biggest transfer markets—leapfrogging football powerhouses like Spain and Italy.
(Bloomberg) — Saudi Arabia’s spending spree on top-flight footballers has instantly turned it into one of the game’s biggest transfer markets—leapfrogging football powerhouses like Spain and Italy.
Teams in the Kingdom spent $875.4 million bringing in foreign players from June 1 to Sept. 1, according to FIFA’s latest International Transfer Snapshot. Only English clubs, with a tab of $1.98 billion, outspent them during the period.
It’s a dramatic change from a year ago—when Saudi Arabia didn’t even crack the top 10 ranking for spending—and underscores the steps being taken by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the Saudi economy into sports and tourism and make it less dependent on crude oil.
This year, Brazilian star Neymar, Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and former Liverpool FC captain Jordan Henderson all made the move to Saudi Arabia for big money contracts. The signings followed the game-changing arrival of Portuguese icon Cristiano Ronaldo to the Saudi Pro League in late 2022.
A key part of Saudi Arabia’s footballing push, which some critics say is an attempt to overhaul the kingdom’s human-rights reputation through ‘sportwashing’, was the recent decision to shift control of four clubs in the Saudi Pro League to the state-backed Public Investment Fund.
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To be sure, the 2023 FIFA report also highlights how far Saudi Arabia has to go in developing local, top-flight talent. It generated transfer receipts of just $15.7 million from player sales from June 1 and Sept. 1, ranking it 34th. The Saudi Pro League transfer window officially shut on Sept. 7.
Richard Masters, head of the English Premier League, said he doesn’t see Saudi Arabia as a threat because its spending dwarfs local earnings from the game there. “You can’t continue to invest ahead of revenue to have a successful competition,” said Masters at a recent press conference.
German clubs generated $1.11 billion from player sales over the summer—more than those in any other country. English clubs were second with total receipts of $956.2 million, followed by those in France on $887.8 million and Italy on $886 million.
Reflecting the growth of the women’s game and the success of the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, transfer fees for female players jumped 141% from mid-2022, albeit to just $3 million. There were 829 contracts transferred in the women’s game between June 1 and Sept. 1, according to FIFA’s report, a jump of 19%.
–With assistance from David Hellier and Paul Wallace.
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