Parallels Between China's Defunct League: Assessing the Longevity of the Saudi Pro League's Appeal
Parallels to China's Fallen League: How Sustainable is the Attraction of the Saudi Pro League?
The clubs of the Saudi Pro League are going on a major shopping spree this summer, pouring loads of money on top stars. This strongly reminds of the rise of the Chinese Super League, which has now disappeared into obscurity. How sustainable is the Saudi project?
Carlos Tevez's verdict was devastating. "Even in 50 years, they won't be able to compete with South Americans and Europeans," said the Argentine in 2017 about the Chinese Super League. Was it the frustration of the then-million-dollar transfer misunderstanding?
Yes, but the striker turned out to be right. With eye-catching investments and notable signings, the Super League made headlines in the 2010s. Stars were lured to the Middle Kingdom with big money.
Not just aging stars cashing in gratefully in the twilight of their careers, but also top players at the peak of their abilities. The clubs didn't hold back, they splurged. But in 2023, the bubble has long burst, and the league lies in ruins.
History Seems to Repeat Itself: Is Saudi Pro League Just a New Version of China?
China is now Saudi Arabia, where the clubs of the Saudi Pro League are packing their money bags this summer and going on a major shopping spree. The mega-transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Al-Nassr in the winter was just the beginning.
CR7 has been followed, among others, by Karim Benzema and the Chelsea trio of N'Golo Kante (both Al-Ittihad), Kalidou Koulibaly (Al Hilal), and Edouard Mendy (Al-Ahli). Their teammate Hakim Ziyech is also rumored to be heading to the desert. At the same time, FC Chelsea's transfer deficit is significantly reduced in one fell swoop. European clubs can only marvel at the spectacle.
The madness knows no age limits either. Ruben Neves, at the age of 26 and despite an alleged agreement with FC Barcelona, is heading to Al-Hilal. Even Manchester City seems powerless as the departure of superstar Bernardo Silva looms. Al-Hilal is also aggressively pursuing the 28-year-old midfielder.
The list is sure to continue in the coming weeks, and one automatically asks whether Saudi Arabia is simply China 2.0? Can we now watch as many stars follow the call of money until this system eventually implodes?
Parallels Exist, but Saudi Arabia Differs from China in Strategy
Parallels do exist, but only at first glance. In China, the fundamental strategy was different. State President Xi Jinping aims to make China a global football power by 2050, which is why the focus was mainly on infrastructure and youth development. Football was to become the number one national sport.
However, the rapid development of the league fueled by investors or billion-dollar corporations was curbed by the state, and its appeal was limited. In addition to a 100% transfer tax, salary caps and spending limits were introduced in recent years. Only five foreigners were allowed in the squad, with four simultaneously on the field. The attractiveness was reined in.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with China's strict Zero-COVID strategy, dealt the final blow to the league, essentially de-commercializing the structure. "Our clubs have burned too much money, and our professional football was not sustainably managed," said Chen Xuyuan, Chairman of the CFA, to the Xinhua agency in 2019. In addition to mismanagement by the clubs,
Sport Plays a Central Role in the Aspired Image Transformation
In Saudi Arabia, the concerns, problems, and constraints faced by China are non-existent, with up to eight foreign players allowed in the squad for the upcoming season. There are no other restrictions. Instead, Saudi Arabia's state influence is fully focused on the development plan "Vision 2030" rather than building a formidable national team.
The Gulf state aims to redefine its image through various billion-dollar mega-projects, including sports, engaging in "sportswashing" to create a polished and glamorous image. Stars like CR7 are meant to divert attention from domestic shortcomings. And at any cost, as money is secondary in this project.
It is difficult to predict where the league is headed, as the Pro League will struggle to shake off its reputation as a retirement league with limited football culture, restricted quality, and limited level, even with the presence of top stars. Similarly, the league in China held no international significance and was relatively inconsequential in terms of sport.
The resources invested are considerable, which makes long-term success likely, but whether they can truly establish themselves as one of the top ten leagues in the world remains questionable," says sports policy expert Jürgen Mittag in an interview with our publication regarding the prospects of the Saudi Pro League. "Especially since the country's natural resources are not infinite."
However, it can be assumed that the stars will be pampered during their prolonged stay. Unlike China, where there were no special privileges, Ronaldo and the other superstars are likely to receive preferential treatment in the Gulf state, despite strict laws. Ultimately, money is the main allure. "Certainly, Saudi Arabia offers professional players a comfortable atmosphere with its significant investments in quality of life and infrastructure," says Mittag.
"However, considering the unmistakable human rights violations and significantly more restrictive political conditions compared to Qatar or other Gulf states, it is evident that the finances flowing into football currently constitute the central attraction."
How Sustainable is Saudi Arabia's Strategy?
The big question is how sustainable this strategy is, especially when compared to China, where a similar approach did not yield even medium-term success. "Given the limited football culture of the country, the national league is not a self-runner," explains Mittag.
However, the billion-dollar investments are also a matter of pride, as Saudi Arabia competes with other Gulf states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in "sportswashing" with the motto of "higher, faster, further." "Given the strategic dimension linked to the national 'Vision 2030' in sports and considering the foreseeable long-term commitment of the Saudis, expectations are justified that this strongly state-supported project will be more successful than the largely privately funded investments in Chinese league football," says Mittag.
Nevertheless, whether Saudi Arabia can truly compete with South Americans and Europeans, unlike China, remains uncertain.