As superstars Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Neymar move from Europe to Saudi Arabia; United Arab Emirates-owned club Manchester City brings home its third English Premier League title in a row; and Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain wins the French championship for the eighth time in 10 years, European soccer appears to be in the clutches of oil-rich Arab countries like never before.
The Gulf states have shown a growing interest in Europe’s most popular sport for more than a decade, but critics say their petrodollars are stifling competition and making tournaments less entertaining, and now they are pushing back. Last month, Spain’s top professional football division, La Liga, filed a complaint with the European Commission against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), arguing that its Qatari funding breaches recently approved EU rules limiting subsidies from outside the bloc.
“I hope there will be an awakening on the real danger that these sovereign funds represent for competition and for the landscape of European soccer,” said Pierre Rondeau, a sports economics expert at the Sports Management School in Paris.
State-run Qatar Investment Authority purchased PSG in 2011. Three years earlier, Britain’s Manchester City had been bought by a group of investors led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the United Arab Emirates’ royal family. And way down in the Premier League rankings, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund took control of Newcastle United last year.
The takeovers have usually come with lavish spending sprees that have enriched the teams’ rosters with some of the best talent around. In the two years that followed the ownership change, Manchester City reportedly spent a whopping $380 billion in transfers. More recently, Qatar’s state coffers allowed PSG to put together one of the most star-studded squads in the history of the game, including strikers Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé—although the team has been spectacularly disappointing on the international stage, reaching (and losing) only one Champions League final since the Qatari takeover.
Wealthy foreign investors are hardly new in European soccer. Before the Emirati royal took over, Manchester City had been the property of Thai tycoon and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Chelsea, another top British team (despite an appalling 12th-place final standing in the Premier League last season and a lukewarm start in the current one), was long owned by controversial Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. But for many, the growing influence of state actors with a seemingly unlimited supply of petrodollars is a different, more problematic trend. In a sign of the newcomers’ spending potential, the Saudi Public Investment Fund’s leisure and entertainment assets amount to just 1.6 percent of the total, according to its 2021 report.
The new Gulf owners’ financial might has often allowed them to have it their way, despite fierce opposition from other teams and regardless of the players’ previous engagements. Neymar was snatched from Barcelona, against the will of the Spanish club, when PSG’s owners agreed to pay a record-breaking release clause of 222 million euros (about $242 million), PSG then went on to buy Messi after Barcelona could not afford to renew the Argentine superstar’s contract, and fended off Real Madrid’s overtures to its own striker, Mbappé, with a reported signing-on fee of more than $100 million.
The money coming into PSG from outside the EU “is having an effect on the European market—it is driving up the price of getting talent,” said Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan and the co-author of Soccernomics.
This can lead to a situation where a handful of top teams with big money hoard all the best players, leaving everyone else with the leftovers. The French championship Ligue 1 has gone from a hard-fought, open-ended contest to one that star-studded PSG is almost certain to win every year.
“To be entertaining, sports require a certain level of rivalry on an equal footing, and that’s largely disappeared from French soccer,” said Jean-Pascal Gayant, an economist with a focus on sports at the University of Rennes. The benefits of the Qatari cash infusion have largely failed to trickle down to the other French clubs as some had hoped, he said. Since the takeover, the overall European ranking of the best French teams has hardly improved, and French first division sides other than PSG have seen their revenues grow by less than 30 percent, against an almost 80 percent rise enjoyed by their Spanish and English counterparts.
Across the channel, the sudden influx of cash from the Gulf has had far-reaching consequences within the English league, too. At the time of the Emirati takeover, Manchester City hadn’t won the top English title in 40 years. It has since won it seven times, more than any other team in the same period. Newcastle’s new Saudi owners, after shopping for players and a new manager, took the club from the 12th position in 2021 to fourth place this year, which for Newcastle is a good finish.
The Gulf’s splurge on European soccer is part of a wider operation encompassing a variety of sports, including golf, wrestling, and motor-racing, that aims to diversify those countries’ oil-dominated economies while boosting their international standing and sportswashing their reputation for human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia, for instance, launched a new pro golf tour that started as a rival for the established U.S. tour and ended up devouring it. The Formula One race season, which for decades lapped iconic tracks like Silverstone and Monaco, now includes four races on new-built circuits in the Persian Gulf in an ever-expanding calendar, with Gulf money sponsoring many races it can’t physically host.
But Gulf monarchies aren’t only buying their way into European soccer: They are also seeking to raise their profile as soccer nations themselves. Qatar hosted the 2022 Men’s World Cup, and the Saudis will host the Club World Cup later this year.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, whose international image is still recovering from the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, has also made it a priority to attract as many star players as possible from the Old Continent. Ronaldo, who signed for Al Nassr in January, is receiving a reported salary of $217 million per year—the highest in the history of the sport. The goal is to dramatically improve the quality of the Saudi Pro League, the country’s top division, attracting investments and fans—amid reports that Riyadh is hoping that the Champions League, Europe’s top club competition, could make the unprecedented move of opening up to Saudi teams.
Aging soccer superstars have long been tempted to conclude their careers earning big bucks in less demanding tournaments outside Europe or South America. Pelé moved to the nascent North American Soccer League in the late 1970s. In the early 1990s, legends like England’s Gary Lineker and Brazil’s Zico moved to Japan for their last few seasons. Many others have since picked China, Australia, or the United States—including David Beckham and most recently, 36-year-old Messi, who signed with Florida club Inter Miami earlier this summer and has already helped it win its first trophy.
More than Europe, many believe that it’s those countries, and the United States’ Major Soccer League in particular (which labors under a salary cap for players), who should worry about Saudi Arabia’s recent drive to import talent.
“The U.S. was seen by some as a semi-retirement home for players,” said Kieran Maguire, a soccer finance expert at the University of Liverpool and co-host of The Price of Football podcast. “Now, to players who might consider going to the U.S., their agents will be saying that their first choice should be the Saudi Pro League. There are no cost control measures operating there, and we’ve seen the level of remuneration that is available.”
Worryingly for Europe, though, Saudi Arabia’s appetite doesn’t stop at players in their sunset years. In July, 26-year-old French striker Allan Saint-Maximin was transferred from Newcastle to Saudi side Al-Ahli. Both teams are controlled by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, and the move has ruffled feathers among other English clubs, who worry that the transfer fee has been inflated and amounts to an irregular injection of capital to Newcastle.
With national leagues upended, transfer prices through the roof, and top players snatched from the continent, the question is whether European soccer can (or even wants to) do anything beyond the occasional grumble.
La Liga has long sought to limit the scope of the Gulf’s spending spree, with its president, Javier Tebas, urging European soccer’s governing body (UEFA) to intervene against state aid that is “irreparably harming the football industry”—an animosity that many attribute to the PSG’s penchant for luring star players away from Spain’s pitches. The new complaint with the European Commission is “textbook Tebas,” Maguire said.
UEFA, for its part, has slapped sanctions on Arab-owned teams on multiple occasions in recent years for breaches of its financial fair play rules—which, in theory, forbid clubs from spending more than their revenues allow. But with many European clubs indebted and strapped for cash, in reality, the governing body “has only feebly protested against this situation of imbalance, given the extra resources that have been pumped into European soccer,” said Gayant, the University of Rennes economist.
While the strongest contenders to national and international titles have been negatively impacted by the massive increase of their Gulf-owned rivals’ financial means, the teams with lower ambitions benefit from the system too, Szymanski said: “PSG, [Manchester] City, and Newcastle have injected a lot of money into the transfer market, and that is a financial benefit to pretty much everybody down the chain.” Medium-sized clubs, in particular, get to sell their star players at head-spinning prices, “which helps them survive financially,” he said.
In this context, despite the complaints coming from some quarters, a wider backlash against the outsized role of Gulf countries in European soccer seems unlikely. And after all, while the financial might of oil-rich sovereign funds from the Middle East may be unparalleled, public intervention in the realm of soccer is anything but new in Europe. French stadiums were renovated on the taxpayers’ dime ahead of the 2016 European Cup. Spanish clubs have been repeatedly bailed out by governments in recent decades, and in 2021, Barcelona and Real Madrid were forced by the EU’s highest court to pay back millions of euros in illegal state aid.
“There has been a history of state subsidies and government support—indirect and sometimes direct—for football teams, and therefore to say that this particular form of distortion [caused by the Gulf states] is unacceptable might turn out to be problematic,” Szymanski said. “It’s a pretty distorted market to begin with.”