RIYADH: Saudi Arabia is interested in discussions about joining Europe’s top football club tournament, the Champions League, as the kingdom spends hundreds of millions of dollars to attract some of the world’s best players and shake up the sport.
“We are trying to be different, so any kind of format-changing or improvements that can be introduced into the league will be welcomed,” the Saudi Pro League’s chief operating officer, Carlo Nohra, said in an interview.
The SPL is still “completely committed” to being in the AFC Champions League, which is Asia’s premier club competition, he said. Any talks about SPL teams joining Europe’s Champions League, he added, would probably be between its organiser, Uefa, and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Uefa members include a few non-European countries, including Kazakhstan, whose clubs can participate in the Champions League.
Uefa referred Bloomberg to comments this month by its chief of football Zvonimir Boban. Responding to a report of a Saudi club joining the Champions League in 2025, he told Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List that it’s a “fabrication”.
Nohra’s comments came shortly before Saudi Arabia appointed Roberto Mancini as coach of the men’s national team, just two weeks after the European Championship-winning manager surprisingly left his job in charge of Italy.
Saudi teams have spent about US$650 million in recent months recruiting players including Karim Benzema from Real Madrid, Brazil’s Neymar and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson.
The kingdom tried to attract Argentina’s Lionel Messi with a massive pay package, but he chose to join Inter Miami in the US instead. Recent reports have said Saudi club Al-Ittihad wants to buy Egyptian superstar Mohamed Salah.
“We are doing whatever it takes to have those players coming to Saudi Arabia,” said Nohra, who previously worked for World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. “That doesn’t mean it’s an open-ended budget. But we cannot handcuff ourselves if we want to bring some of the best talents here. We’ve got to pay the going rates to bring them here.”
In terms of making money, the SPL remains a minnow relative to the world’s top football leagues. But the purchase of such prominent players underscores Saudi Arabia’s grand ambitions as it looks to diversify from oil by making huge investments in everything from sports to new cities and electric cars.
The SPL has pushed hard in the past year to attract more sponsors and sign broadcast deals with international media companies. Its games are now aired in around 140 countries, Nohra said, and broadcast revenue has increased 650% since Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo joined from Manchester United late last year.
“They are not massive revenues to finance all the activities that we’ve got, but it’s certainly significant movement,” he said.
The SPL’s growth is a long-term process and there’s no set timeline for when it wants to break-even.
“Driving the enterprise value of the league and the clubs is definitely at the heart of what we do,” he said. “If that makes the clubs and the league an investible asset, then we would have achieved the objective.”