Messi vs Ronaldo: what a match between the two legends tells us about the future of sport
The tantalizing prospect of a meeting between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo has naturally dominated the build-up for the match between French champions Paris Saint Germain and a Saudi All-Star XI on January 19 in Riyadh.
But this friendly is another example of the Gulf countries’ growing influence in sport, and goes far beyond the decision to stage this exhibition match in Saudi Arabia.
Since 2011, PSG has been owned by Qatari investors linked to the country’s royal family and the resulting cash injection has brought global superstars such as Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar to the club.
Ronaldo faced them as part of the Saudi All-Star XI thanks to his decision to sign a two-and-a-half-year contract with Saudi club Al-Nasr that would net him more than $200m (121bn 295m 570k FFA) .
One fan even paid $2.6 million (1,576,842,400 FCFA) for an exhibition match ticket at auction, underlining the purchasing power that is increasingly shifting the influence of world football away from Europe and from Latin America to the Middle East.
Previously known for acquiring more traditional assets overseas, such as properties and businesses, regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are increasingly interested in the sports industry, which experts see as a diplomatic effort to ” soft power” mixed with a desire for economic diversification.
PSG is not the only major European club controlled directly or indirectly by the Gulf countries.
The first major club to be bought was Manchester City in 2008. The English Premier League team was acquired by billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Emirati monarchy.
In recent years, the list has grown with the most controversial deal: the takeover of another English Premier League club, Newcastle United, by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
The operation sparked controversy in the UK, centered around the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
A critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Western intelligence agencies believe the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing, a charge he has strongly denied.
The takeover was only cleared when there were “legally binding assurances” that the Saudi state would not control the club.
In addition to taking stakes in teams, the Gulf countries have also hosted major matches and sealed massive sponsorship deals.
Saudi Arabia has invested in promoting special editions of European football matches, such as the Italian and Spanish Super Cups, both played in Riyadh.
The UAE’s national airline, Emirates, has struck multi-million pound sponsorship deals with giants Real Madrid and AC Milan.
Major sporting events
The fact that Qatar hosted the 2022 Men’s World Cup is the most visible example of the Gulf countries’ willingness to host major sporting events, but it is not the only one. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain will all host Formula 1 Grands Prix in the 2023 season.
Qatar has hosted world championships in sports as diverse as swimming, athletics, and gymnastics.
Saudi Arabia has also hosted several high profile boxing matches and WWE wrestling events. There have even been (strongly contested) rumors that the wrestling sports entertainment brand could be sold to a Saudi owner.
The Olympic Holy Grail
The fact that Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup, which many believe was successful, should make it more likely that other major sporting events will be staged in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering a joint bid with Egypt and Greece to host the 2030 World Cup and insiders believe Qatar’s capital, Doha, is ready to bid for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics of 2036.
The city has already been nominated twice, but the excellent infrastructure and transport links showcased at last year’s World Cup could give Qataris a new trump card.
And don’t forget the Winter Olympics: Last October, Saudi Arabia won the right to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games, which will be held in the new $500 billion city of Neom (303 billion 238 billion 920 million FCFA) featuring a ski resort in the middle of the desert and scheduled for completion in 2026.
The huge oil and gas industries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have given them the financial strength to compete at the highest level of global sports administration, but it has not been without generating criticism.
For example, Qatar has come under heavy criticism ahead of the 2022 World Cup due to its human rights record, including labor rights and LGBT rights. .
The country’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, responded by saying he found the scrutiny his country has been subjected to disproportionate: “Since we won the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced”.
But if the criticisms can continue, the huge growth of Gulf countries playing a role in global sport looks set to continue.