Benzema, Ronaldo and Co.: Old Men's League of Stars: Why Saudi Arabia is attracting more and more footballers to the desert

The show was worthy of a star like Karim Benzema.

Benzema, Ronaldo and Co.: Old Men's League of Stars: Why Saudi Arabia is attracting more and more footballers to the desert

The show was worthy of a star like Karim Benzema. The lasers burned a tiger's head into the night sky, which snarled menacingly over Jeddah's King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, cheering more than 60,000 thousand spectators. A few moments later, Karim Benzema entered the stadium through a line of children and was greeted by a presenter in the center circle. Benzema's appearance was garnished with an opulent light and laser show and fireworks. The glowing mobile phones on the stands of the darkened arena gave the impression of a starry sky.

Benzema, World Footballer of the Year 2022 and five-time Champions League winner, is the second transfer coup of the Saudi Pro League, the football league of Saudi Arabia, after Ronaldo. Benzema will play for Al Ittihad FC, the reigning champions. In the league games he will face his former Real Madrid club-mate Cristiano Ronaldo. He had already switched to Al Nassr FC, which is based in the capital Riyadh, in January. More big names are to follow: N'Golo Kanté from Chelsea, once the world's best six and world champion in 2018, is said to be on the way and to become Benzema's teammate. Top players such as Lukaku (Inter Milan), Busquets (FC Barcelona until summer) or Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain) are said to have also received offers.

The spectacular transfers are the first result of a long-term strategy and football plays an important role in it. It's less about developing your own league organically and more about the big goal of the world championship. Saudi Arabia wants to host the 2030 World Cup along with Egypt and Greece, following the example of Qatar. For Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the country, hosting the World Cup would be a great success on the way to modernizing the country. Saudi Arabia also wants to be a global player in sports.

In order to achieve the goal, no mess is made: the Saudi Arabian state fund recently took over the clubs Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and the champions of the second division, Al-Ahli, in order to finance more stars. Because the salaries for Ronaldo and Benzema are astronomical and must be financed. A football club cannot do this alone. Ronaldo is said to receive 200 million euros a year, Benzema supposedly half.

The Saudi clubs are in good company with the Premier League club Newcastle United, which the Saudi state fund bought in October 2021 (price: 373 million dollars) and pimped with millions of euros. The result: the former middle class club has now qualified for the Champions League. The Saudis only received a rebuff from the very greatest. Lionel Messi instead went to Major League Soccer in Miami for sponsorship from Apple and Microsoft. After all, Messi was won as a tourism ambassador for the desert state.

Before investing heavily in football, the country invested in other sports. Numerous competitions have been brought to the country in recent years: a Formula 1 race, the Dakar Rally, the Handball Club World Championship, the FIFA Club World Championship 2023, the WWE Wrestling League, the Italian football Supercup, the Spanish Supercup , a tennis tournament, boxing matches and its own golf series. Saudi Arabia is at the forefront. The 2029 Asian Winter Games, which are taking place in Saudi Arabia, a country that is 60 percent desert, illustrates just how great the will is. Traditional locality no longer exists. With the sheikh billions, anything is possible, no matter how absurd it may seem.

Behind the grand plan is a conscious soft-power strategy that some Gulf states have been pursuing for a long time. Qatar has achieved the most visible success so far by hosting the 2022 World Cup. The first World Cup in an Arab country is seen as the shining culmination of this strategy, and has given a boost to Saudi Arabia's aspirations to shine as well. Because it's not just about football or sport in general. The super-rich oil states gain prestige and influence through major international events without exercising economic or military power.

In the West, the development is viewed critically. The World Cup in Qatar made it clear that things are shifting. Europe may be the undisputed leader in football, but for how much longer? One of the accusations from the West is that all of the investments are primarily about sports washing, with which the sheikh autocracies distract attention from human rights violations. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy with no freedom of the press or freedom of expression, women and minorities are oppressed. The dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018. US intelligence services blame Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for the brutal murder.

Source: "Sportschau", "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung", "Deutschlandfunk", DPA