An event, remarkable even for football, took place recently. The Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo left England, which has perhaps the most competitive football (a.k.a. “soccer”) league in the world, to play in Saudi Arabia. Ronaldo will be 38 in three weeks and though at his best he was regarded as one of the best ever to play the game, he is now some way past it. Yet Al-Nassr, a club in a country not known for a strong football heritage, is prepared to pay him an astonishing £177 million (about $216 million) annually for 2½ years.
That huge salary clearly was significant in Ronaldo’s decision to move to Riyadh, where his arrival last week was greeted by thousands of fans and made headlines around the world. It will make him the most highly paid footballer in the world. But what is in it for Saudi Arabia, a country where football is popular but where its two main leagues have very small appeal or success outside their own country?
The answer is it is the latest attempt by Saudi Arabia to curry favour with countries around the world via sport and thereby obscure its vile record on human rights, a practice known as sportswashing. The money to do this is available from the country’s Public Investment Fund, said to be worth more than $600 billion.
This follows the Saudis’ purchase of Newcastle United Football Club in northeast England which, after an initial flurry of discontent, is now favourably regarded, particularly as the club is enjoying a run of success the likes of which it has not achieved before.
They started the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, part of motor racing’s Formula 1 circuit, in 2021. The recent world heavyweight boxing title rematch between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk was held not in London, New York or Las Vegas, the traditional venues for big fights, but Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city after the capital Riyadh.
Might Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the man said by Western intelligence to have approved the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul four years ago, call in his LIV minions ...
Saudi Arabians are said to be candidates to inject money into either Liverpool or Manchester United now that the American owners of these two famous football clubs have hinted they want to sell all or part of the clubs.
This past year or so, the Saudis have been trying to move into professional golf, a centuries-old game played around the world, in an attempt to make the game popular in the Middle East. Last year a company called LIV Golf (LIV is 54 in Roman numerals, and its tournaments are 54 holes), using Greg Norman as its front man, offered huge payments to lure a number of the world’s best golfers to join a tour that rivals the PGA Tour in the U.S. and the DP World Tour, once known as the European Tour. It started a very uncivil war in a very civil sport, and from that moment to this it is, frankly, almost all anyone in golf is talking about.
The arrival of LIV Golf came with as much subtlety as a brick through a window, and LIV Golf’s dispute with the two main tours in the world is the most talked-about subject in the game since Tiger Woods burst on the scene nearly 30 years ago and said with that wide toothy smile: “Hello, world.”
Traditionalists, who seem to hold the upper hand at present, resent the way the game has been disrupted while accepting that for many lesser players the appeal of huge sums of money outweighs the end of their competitiveness.
But traditionalists direct their most vehement ire at the way LIV Golf players, having taken money from the Saudi Arabians, are now seeking a legal right to return to their former employers at certain times. There are almost as many legal actions going now as there are clubs in a golf bag, and the money being spent by both sides on their respective positions is more than many a sheikh could shake a stick at.
An eminent golf administrator put it this way last week: “I have no problem with anyone leaving for a better job, but what the LIV people are doing is a bit like the person who is lured away by a rival firm which offers them more money, more holidays, better medical benefits, a bigger car. They agree to leave their present firm and to start at their new firm and then one day they say to their new employers: ‘Oh, by the way, I’ll work for you on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but I want to go back and work for my previous firm on Thursdays and Fridays.’ Talk about wanting your cake and eating it.”
Where will this end? The first sign may come early next month with the decision by the independent body Sport Resolutions in London as to whether a cadre of LIV Golf-backed players can play on the DP World Tour.
Or the end may come sooner and in a most unexpected way. Might Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the man said by Western intelligence to have approved the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul four years ago, call in his LIV minions and speak to them as follows (Please bear in mind that while these might be his thoughts, they are my words.):
“Look here,” he might say. “We moved into football with success, and our signing of Ronaldo has generated headlines and good publicity for us around the world. There does not seem to be any hostility to us moving into motor racing nor boxing nor football.
“But right from the start, LIV Golf has attracted enormous hostility. Greg, there seems to be a lot of antagonism toward you personally, which is not helping LIV’s cause. Some of your public comments have been crass, to say the least. We are not improving our image in golf. We are not generating tourism and economic investment in our country by moving into golf. We are not making Saudi Arabia appear to be a golf destination. In fact, the opposite is true.
“You were supposed to announce this year’s schedule late last year. It still has not been published. We have anticipated more signings of players. There have been few, if any. No sooner had the first LIV tournament been held in England than Sean Bratches, LIV’s chief commercial officer, quit. Last month Atul Khosla, the chief operating officer, resigned. To amend Lady Bracknell’s famous remark in Oscar Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: ‘To lose one top executive, Mr Norman, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks of carelessness.’
“So far, no television broadcaster is prepared to pay to transmit our product – not SkySports nor BT Sport, two big players in the United Kingdom; likewise Amazon, Disney and DAZN.
“It all seems to have gone wrong. Contrary to our reputation being enhanced, it is being tarnished again and again. We have invested over half a billion dollars in LIV Golf, and not only is it not yielding any dividend, it is generating hostility. There was a segment on CNN in the U.S. last week that was far from sympathetic.
“Gentlemen, I have had enough. I am closing down LIV Golf. Please settle all debts immediately and let us demonstrate that even if we couldn’t get LIV Golf off the ground, then we can at least end a disastrous venture in a dignified manner. Enough is enough.”
Top: Mohammed bin Salman
Murat Kula, Anadolu Agency Via Getty Images