N’Golo Kante’s anticipated departure from Chelsea for Al-Ittihad, as well as the possibility of other colleagues following him to the Middle East, has highlighted Saudi Arabia’s growing prominence in sports.
The prospective migration of players from the big-spending Stamford Bridge club to the Gulf state has raised eyebrows in recent days, with suspicions that it is a gimmick to help the club achieve Financial Fair Play regulations.
The PA news agency examines recent occurrences and how they may affect the Premier League.
Why is Chelsea selling players?
Since taking over as owner of Chelsea, Todd Boehly has gone on an extravagant spending binge.
Since American billionaire Todd Boehly took possession in May last year, the Blues have spent over £600 million on players, including a £106.8 million January swoop for World Cup winner Enzo Fernandez. Earlier this week, they spent £52 million on RB Leipzig attacker Christopher Nkunku.
Sales of Timo Werner and Jorginho have only partially offset that outlay, and with the club reporting a loss of £121 million for the 2021-22 season, Financial Fair Play rules, which stipulate that teams may only generate losses of £105 million over three seasons, are an issue.
Who are the alleged participants?
Cristiano Ronaldo departed Manchester United in January for Al-Nassr.
Chelsea’s departure of Kante to the Gulf state may not be the last. Other players connected with moves to Saudi teams include Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy, Romelu Lukaku, Hakim Ziyech, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
They are not alone; Wolves player Ruben Neves is likely to complete a move to Al-Hilal, with former Manchester United star Cristiano Ronaldo’s January move to Al-Nassr paving the way.
What is attracting so many players to Saudi Arabia?
Pele, the Brazilian soccer legend, played for the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League.
The money on offer may have something to do with it. The Public Investment Fund, the Middle East state’s sovereign wealth fund, gained control of four Saudi Pro League clubs earlier this month – Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal, and Al-Nassr – as part of the larger ‘Vision 2030’ goal to diversify the Saudi economy. The kingdom’s leadership also believes that a strong professional sports sector will help push up grassroots participation levels.
The Saudis have indicated their intention to bid for the 2030 World Cup, and boosting the caliber and prestige of the domestic league could be critical to that aim. PIF has the financial clout to bring in big names, and Karim Benzema has already committed to join Al-Ittihad.
It is hardly the first time that a growing league has used such strategies. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Bobby Moore all spent time in the North American Soccer League near the conclusion of their careers, while China has recently attracted a slew of top-flight stars to their Super League.
Does the phrase “Public Investment Fund” ring a bell?
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chairman of the Public Investment Fund, and co-owner Amanda Staveley
It ought to. PIF owns an 80% share in Newcastle United, which has spent more than £250 million on new signings since the Amanda Staveley-led consortium, of whom it is a significant partner, completed their buy-out at St James’ Park in October 2021.
The Magpies finished fourth in the Premier League last season and qualified for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years, much to the delight of support that has been re-energized amid widespread criticism of the club’s newfound fortune.
Newcastle’s chairman, PIF’s governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is also a prominent actor in the contentious merger of the LIV Golf series and the PGA and DP World Tours, which has led to new charges of sports washing.
What’s the big deal about Chelsea?
This is when things start to get interesting. Clearlake Capital Group, a private equity firm, provided roughly 60% of the money for Boehly’s £2.5 billion takeover and has sponsored much of the investment subsequently; PIF is a Clearlake investor. Financial experts believe that because Clearlake’s portfolio is so large, while some PIF money may be part of its investment in Chelsea, there is no direct relationship and hence no chance of violating Premier League rules that restrict ownership of two clubs. However, others believe that any existing tie between the Blues, the sovereign wealth fund, and the four local teams it now controls will allow them to sell players for inflated amounts, reducing their FFP responsibility.
What is known about the situation?
Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville has asked the Premier League to look into moves to Saudi teams. Gary Neville, co-owner of League Two Salford and a former Manchester United and England defender, is displeased. “The Premier League should put an immediate embargo on transfers to Saudi Arabia to ensure the integrity of the game isn’t jeopardized,” Neville told BBC Sport. The propriety of the transactions should be checked.”