Arabian deals

João Caiado Guerreiro's opinion piece in the newspaper A Bola: "The main beneficiary of the Saudi millions will be FIFA, which expects to increase its turnover every four years, from seven billion to ten billion."
News 28/08/2023

Saudi Arabia has become the epicentre of world soccer this off-season. This was already the case nine months ago when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Al Nassr with a two-and-a-half-year contract and 500 million in his pocket. Other important players have left Europe for the Arab country: Neymar, Benzema, Mahrez, Firmino, Fabinho, Kanté, Otávio, Mané, and Ruben Neves, among others.

Lionel Messi didn’t make it, but even without playing in the Saudi league, the Argentine star signed a three-year contract to promote the country on his social networks: he will receive 22 million euros. In other words, there’s no end to the millions in Saudi oil. Look, dear reader, the latest figures show that in December 2022 alone, Saudi Arabia exported oil worth 22 billion dollars!

We’ve seen this movie before, but in golf, the Saudi Sovereign Fund tried to enter the prestigious PGA circuit. It failed. It founded a rival league, investing millions in hiring great players. In the end, “and they lived happily ever after” happened: the Saudi league merged with the PGA Tour, and now the Saudi Arabian Sovereign Wealth Fund calls the shots in this sport. Could the same happen in soccer?

According to the Financial Times, a prestigious English economic publication, the primary beneficiary of the Saudi millions will be FIFA, which expects to increase its turnover every four years from seven billion to ten billion. This is because the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund has, in its official policy, the development of sport as a foundation for political and diplomatic gains and for transforming the country in the eyes of the international community. Faced with such financial power, how can Europe and European clubs, world footballing powerhouses, combat the inexhaustible reserve of black gold? Ideas are beginning to emerge: Aurelio de Laurentis, president of Italian champions Napoli FC, had the first. During the renewal of Victor Osinhem, the team’s star striker, he insisted on adding an anti-Arabia clause to the player’s contract. The idea is simple: 150 million euros if a European club signs him. Almost double that if the destination is a Saudi Arabian club. Is that possible?

This clause sounds like the so-called “anti-rival” clause. Only here, the rival is a whole country with inexhaustible funds. This off-season, a Portuguese club did something worth remembering: until July 15, anyone who wanted to sign Otávio, FC do Porto’s midfielder, had to pay 40 million euros. From that date onwards, the clause would rise to 60M€. Inter Milan, Napoli and Al Nassr showed interest but didn’t make a move before the 15th. But 30 days later, the Saudi club came to Porto, saw and paid. Was it an anti-Arab clause by Pinto da Costa? A show of power by the Saudis – to show that they pay what they want when they want – or simply Arab sporting and financial mismanagement?

Article 19 of the Sports Employment Contract Law states that “clauses inserted in a sports employment contract aimed at conditioning or limiting the freedom of work of the sportsperson after the end of their contractual relationship are null and void.” The same goes for the Collective Bargaining Agreement between Liga Portugal and the Players’ Union.

However, it isn’t likely against the law to make a higher termination clause for specific countries if it’s during the contract. Whether it works in practice is another matter because there are many ways to convince clubs and players with proposals that include life-changing figures.

Cruyft used to say that he had “never seen a bag of money score goals”. But here, it’s not bags; it’s barrels, which mean quality players who are more likely to score goals. And when scoring goals or goals that would have changed history but ended up not happening because of a wretched New Zealand goalpost, the right to the goal goes to our “navigators” who put on a beautiful World Cup. Nothing can repay such brilliance!

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