Some of soccer’s biggest names are revealing themselves to be shameless mercenaries on a scale that is staggering even by the sport’s abysmally low standards. Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid striker, is the latest superstar to answer the siren calls of one last big pay day plying his waning talents in Saudi Arabia. Benzema will receive a reported $107 million a season playing for the Saudi champions, al-Ittihad. He will play in front of an average home crowd of just 30,000 supporters.
Benzema joins his former Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo who earns a reported $218 million a season playing for rival Saudi club, al-Nassr. All eyes now turn to Lionel Messi and whether he too will take the Saudi shilling. He is apparently mulling an offer to play for al-Hilal in a deal worth some $560 million over two years. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious to suggest that these staggering sums make no economic sense. It is depressing to see such high-profile players — already absurdly wealthy — sell themselves and their legacy to the Saudis. Do they even bother to ask why they are being offered this kind of money to play in an irrelevant soccer league?
Many golf fans are horrified by this Saudi blood money takeover
The supremely wealthy Saudis don’t need any lessons in the power of money. A few hundred million dollars spent on footballing gods with a global profile and millions of followers on social media is money well spent for a regime that is trying to change its image on the world stage. It wants to be seen as a tourist and sporting destination, a country where Messi, Ronaldo and co are happy to play, helping turn international attention away from its abysmal human rights record.
Sportwashing is the term commonly used to describe this cynical strategy — and the Saudis are deploying it to great effect in sports from soccer and boxing to motor racing. The Saudi-backed LIV tour has split the world of golf by poaching top players including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. This week, LIV announced a merger with the PGA Tour. Donald Trump is delighted. “A BIG, BEAUTIFUL, AND GLAMOROUS DEAL FOR THE WORLD OF GOLF, CONGRATS TO ALL!!!,” he wrote. But many golf fans are horrified by this Saudi blood money takeover, which shows, yet again, that money is all that matters in sports. The good guys in golf, like Rory McIlroy, who turned down a fortune to join LIV golf, have been left high and dry.
No sport is immune from the lure of the Saudis. In 2021, the country hosted the first ever Saudi Formula 1 Grand Prix. It will host the 2023 Club World Cup soccer tournament later this year. The 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held in Saudi Arabia; and there are reports that it is angling to host the 2030 World Cup.
Money is the only currency that matters in international sports and the Saudis have more of it than anyone else on the planet. The latest Forbes rich list, published last month, is further evidence of the country’s growing influence. Four of the world’s ten richest sports stars owe their place on the list to Saudi money. Ronaldo comes top, thanks to his mega deal with al-Nassr. The golfers Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson make it into the top ten after joining the Saudi-backed LIV tour. The Premier League is another case in point. The Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, through the state-backed Public Investment Fund, was initially controversial but appears less so now that the team is doing well and the Champions League beckons. All talk of human rights abuses and sportswashing has given way to fevered discussions of the big name players the club might sign in the summer transfer window.
The lust for Saudi money has given birth to a self-serving amnesia in the highest echelons of sports. It suits everyone involved to turn a blind eye to the regime’s appalling record of human rights abuses. It is only four years ago that the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and his body dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. A CIA report concluded that this was ordered by the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. He denies doing so.
Women’s rights remain severely curtailed under the Saudi male guardianship system. The regime routinely resorts to using the death penalty as punishment for a wide range of crimes: on a single day in March last year, eighty-one people were executed. Is it really plausible to suggest that taking Saudi money can be separated from the regime’s politics and human rights abuses? Are we really supposed to believe the fiction that sports and politics are separate? The Saudis clearly don’t believe in such nonsense. They’re blatantly using international sports — its governing bodies and superstars — to buy international respectability and immunity from criticism. Shame on the greedy fools in soccer and golf for aiding and abetting them.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.