“I’m here in Saudi Arabia – I’m a Hilali,” Neymar announced in a video message. The 31-year-old Brazilian is moving to Saudi Arabia as the next football superstar. The Saudi club Al-Hilal is said to be paying Paris St. Germain a fee of almost 100 million euros for Neymar. In 2017, the offensive player joined the French series champions from FC Barcelona for the previous record sum of 222 million euros.
Neymar’s new employers Al-Hilal are the record winners of the Asian Champions League with four titles. The Saudi Professional League, which ranks in the top 3 of the Asian Football Association AFC alongside the Japanese and South Korean leagues, marks the next signing of a superstar who previously made his money in Europe.
The five-time world footballer Cristiano Ronaldo started in January. The 38-year-old Portuguese is under contract with the Al-Nassr club and is said to collect 200 million euros a year. Other stars of advanced footballing age followed the call of big money, such as Frenchman Karim Benzema (from Real Madrid to Al-Ittihad), Algerian Riyad Mahrez (Manchester City to Al-Ahli), Senegalese Sadio Mane (FC Bayern Munich to Al -Nassr).
The Saudis also lured the French vice world champion Kylian Mbappe, who was willing to change, with an almost immoral offer: According to media reports, the 24-year-old could earn 700 million euros a year at Al-Hilal. At the moment, however, it looks more like Mbappe will stay at PSG, at least initially. The six-time world footballer Lionel Messi from Argentina, who is already promoting Saudi Arabia as a “tourism ambassador”, rejected an offer from Al-Hilal – allegedly with an annual salary of 400 million euros – and hired at the US club Inter Miami.
The US league had already successfully attracted aging football stars with high salaries in the late 1970s, such as the Brazilian legend Pele, the German world champions Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller, the Dutchman Johan Cruyff and Bobby Moore, captain of the English world champion team from 1966 At that time it was about making football more popular in the USA, which was also successful.
Less successful in the mid-2010s were clubs in the Chinese league, which began signing western stars on a large scale. The aim of the government in Beijing was to quickly lead China to the top of the world football league. The experiment failed – also because the Chinese clubs went into massive debt.
Sports investment company founded
This danger does not exist in Saudi Arabia, money is plentiful there. Massive investments in sport are also part of the “Vision 2030” development plan, with which the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has long been the strongman in the state as Prime Minister, wants to modernize the country and make it less dependent on oil revenues. Bin Salman is the chairman of the Saudi state fund PIF (Public Investment Fund), which claims to have funds of 778 billion US dollars, which is the equivalent of around 710 billion euros.
The PIF has been investing in sport for years, for example in the new golf tournament series LIV, Formula 1 and also football. In 2021, the PIF took over 80 percent of the shares in the English Premier League club Newcastle United. Since last June, the Saudi fund has also held 75 percent of the shares in the top domestic clubs Al-Ittihad, Al-Nassr, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli and made the spectacular transfers from Ronaldo to Benzema to Neymar possible.
In early August, the PIF established SRJ Sports Investments “to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position as one of the world’s leading sports and entertainment destinations,” the fund said. The government thus institutionalized its financial commitment to sport. An application for a mega-event such as a soccer World Cup or the Olympic Games seems only a matter of time.
Persistent human rights violations
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long accused Saudi Arabia of sportswashing. This refers to the strategy of governments to distract from human rights violations with glossy sporting events. Among other things, Amnesty refers to the high number of executions in Saudi Arabia – “many of them after extremely unfair trials” – as well as to the high number of prison sentences of between ten and 45 years imposed on people who would have expressed themselves peacefully on the Internet. In addition, despite some reforms, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia continue to be restricted, and homosexuality is punishable.
After his move, Amnesty asked Cristiano Ronaldo to use his popularity to draw attention to human rights violations in the country. The Portuguese has 600 million followers on Instagram alone. There he only provides his fans with sporting and private posts and refrains from political statements. Saudi Arabia’s footballing newcomer Neymar supported the then right-wing populist incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election campaign last year, making international headlines. He is not considered a fervent fighter for human rights either.