Faith, Fortune, and Football in Saudi Arabia
The convergence of Islamic culture and lavish contracts has positioned the Saudi Pro League as a desirable destination for some elite footballers. Ultimately, which matters more?
Last month, Saudi football club Al Ittihad welcomed former Real Madrid striker and current Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema to the team with an extravagant unveiling ceremony at the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah.
More than 60,000 fans flocked to witness the event, as Benzema became the second Ballon d’Or winner to join the Saudi Pro League in a six-month span, following in the footsteps of former Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr in January.
The unveiling ceremony, which included an elaborate light and firework show, began with a press conference, where the 35-year-old discussed his decision to join the Saudi Pro League. Benzema, who reportedly signed a deal worth more than $200 million for two-and-a-half years, claimed that his move to Saudi Arabia was inspired by his Muslim religion rather than the king’s ransom on offer.
“Because I’m Muslim and this is a Muslim country, and I have always wanted to live here,” Benzema said during the press conference. “It’s different, it’s different to Europe. I’ve already been to Saudi Arabia and I feel good about it. Most importantly, it’s a Muslim country, it’s beloved and it’s beautiful.’
Benzema, who is of Algerian heritage, added that his family was also excited to move to the “holy kingdom,” where they feel intimately connected.
“It’s where I want to be because it’s important for me to be in a Muslim country, where I feel people [are] already like me. It will allow me to have a new life and I can’t wait to live there. I would like to speak Arabic fluently, it’s important for me.
“This is where I will feel at my best and in my element.”
Benzema is not alone. The confluence of faith and fortune has transformed Saudi Arabia into an increasingly desirable destination for elite footballers seeking both professional success and a connection to their Islamic heritage.
French superstar N’Golo Kante, a fellow practising Muslim, is also expected to join Benzema at Al-Ittihand. Kante regularly fasts during Ramadan and has been vocal about the important role that his Islamic faith plays in his life. The French midfielder even visited Madina, the sacred city in western in Saudi Arabia, shortly after winning the World Cup in 2018.
Other Muslim footballers such as Man City Treble winner Riyad Mahrez, Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mané, Moroccan right-winger Hakim Ziyech and Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou have also been linked to moves to Saudi Arabia this coming season. Egyptian star Mohammed Salah would likely have been a major target for the Saudi Pro League had he not signed a new long-term deal with Liverpool in 2022.
There is certainly a case to be made that Saudi Arabia’s rich Islamic heritage would be appealing to Muslim players, particularly those who prioritize practicing their faith. The country hosts the annual Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj in Mecca, which is a deeply significant event for Muslims worldwide. Footballers who are devout Muslims may be drawn to Saudi Arabia because it allows them to fulfill their religious obligations more easily.
Moreover, the Islamic culture and values in Saudi Arabia can resonate with Muslim footballers who seek an environment that aligns with their religious beliefs. The presence of mosques, halal food options, and an Islamic lifestyle can create a sense of familiarity and comfort for Muslim players.
From a practical perspective, however, the financial incentives offered to players, including high salaries and attractive contracts, remain the most appealing aspect to footballers regardless of their faith. Benzema is making more than $200 million a year, while Kante will be paid approximately $107 million per annum. Without such exorbitant figures, it is highly unlikely that either player would have taken their talents to the kingdom.
Meanwhile, many of the footballers who have signed deals with the Saudi Pro League in recent weeks have not been of Muslim faith. Roberto Firmino agreed a three-year deal with the Jeddah-based Al-Ahli club, where he will be joined by former Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. Portugal’s Ruben Neves left Wolverhampton Wanderers to join Al-Hilal on a three-year deal. Former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard also agreed to become the new manager of Al Ettifaq, and followed up by poaching a member of Liverpool’s staff to join him at the Saudi club. Clearly, Saudi Arabia, with its seemingly limitless resources, has a lot more to offer than its Islamic heritage.
Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented investment in its national football league is a centralized effort financed by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). The sovereign wealth fund, which is chaired by the kingdom’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, recently acquired majority stakes in the league’s top four clubs—Al-Ahli, Al-Ittihad, Al-Hilal, and Al-Nassr—in an attempt to turn the country’s domestic league into a hotbed for global talent. The clubs, in turn, have since seduced some of the world’s top players to join their teams with extraordinary deals that could be worth more than $1 billion in wages for 20 foreign players.
Saudi Arabia’s investments in its domestic football league signals the latest development in the kingdom’s greater sports ambitions. Saudi now hosts a yearly Formula 1 race, biannual World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) shows, the world’s richest horse race, and some of the most important heavyweight boxing showdowns in recent memory. The PIF also financed the purchase of Newcastle United, a football team in the English Premier League and helped bring about the capitulation of a major U.S. sports organization through its hostile takeover of the PGA Tour.
Yet despite the allures of the resource-rich kingdom, several top footballers have turned down offers to play in the Gulf state. Lionel Messi turned down a record offer of €400m ($436m) per year from Al Hilal, opting instead to join MLS side Inter Miami (note: Messi still has a working relationship with Saudi Arabia in the form of a partnership with the country’s tourism authority).
South Korea captain Son Heung-Min turned down an offer from Al-Ittihad while legendary midfielder Luka Modric rejected a three-year, £170m ($215m) deal with Al-Hilal to stay at Real Madrid. Nevertheless, we are yet to see a Muslim footballer reject an offer to play in the kingdom.
While Saudi Arabia’s Islamic heritage may be a captivating draw for elite players like Benzema, it is the lucrative financial incentives offered by the Saudi Pro League that remains the undeniable driving force behind the influx of top footballers. In the end, when it comes to choosing their next career move, the resounding echoes of fortune will drowns out all other factors.
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