There are moments in football when the sport seems completely oblivious to the game-changing challenges it faces. The response to the Saudi Pro League is almost a case in point. The subject was not on the agenda for the Football Association board meeting on Thursday and sources say it was not brought up. Those present must feel the same as Uefa president Aleksandr Ceferin, who believes there is “no threat” to his continent’s football ecosystem, words almost exactly echoed by European Club Association (ECA) president Nasser Al Khelaifi.
This is despite many top clubs repeatedly raising the issue in meetings, while it was constantly discussed by the ECA’s own members in informal chats.
How could it not be? The current situation is unprecedented. Even before you get to the huge expenditure, which is arguably fair enough on its own terms and still below the Premier League, there is the source of much of it.
The Saudi Pro League has four clubs that are owned by one entity, which is the Public Investment Fund (PIF), who also own a major club in another country in Newcastle United. That alone brings it beyond other multi-club projects but it is compounded by the fact the Saudi Pro League is a sportswashing project by the state, from which the PIF is practically indistinguishable as its sovereign wealth fund.
Appeals to “legally binding assurances” don’t really work in real terms there, particularly when this is one of the most centralised states in the world. All of this as the game has been upended. The view from many within European football is that Saudi sport plans currently see football in the same way it has seen golf and boxing, which is to invest so much money so as to give the sport no choice but be forced to do even bigger business and integrate it on a deeper level.
This is why leaks about ambitions to join the Champions League were so concerning for those within Uefa. Anyone dismissing it need only look at LIV Golf.
It isn’t difficult to imagine similar in football. There could easily be a situation where Saudi Pro League spending becomes so disruptive for the European game that entry into the Champions League is put forward as a negotiation chip.
“It’s ultimately better to work with these interests rather than have them working against you,” one federation source said of the autocratic Gulf states, due their financial and legal power.
By that point of integrating such leagues into the Champions League, however, it really would be LIV Football and Uefa would have lost its one remaining advantage over the Saudi competition. Players would no longer need to compromise career ambitions to go there.
While that is currently little more than a hypothetical, there are real challenges right now.
Newcastle United’s interactions with their sister clubs in Saudi Arabia were relatively restrained, with just Allan Saint-Maximin going the other way for a relatively normal £25m fee. Even that raised the antennae of other Premier League clubs, who were keenly watching any link between these two different parts of the PIF sporting empire. Many around Liverpool meanwhile repeatedly raised how it was their players who were the subject of more destabilising bids, with Jamie Carragher getting jokingly accused of conspiracy theorising on television.
It is not a conspiracy, though, to say there are no rules against collusion. That is the point.
“It needs to be regulated as the opportunity for sporting integrity to be breached is huge,” one federation head argues.
None of this is to say that Newcastle, the PIF-owned or Saudi clubs will engage in any kind of collusion. It is that football’s regulations are supposed to pre-empt precisely this sort of situation.
That is why Uefa does not currently allow clubs with the same owners to play in the same competition, although Ceferin’s evolving views as regards multi-club ownership are themselves worthy of scrutiny. However, as this precise example involves clubs outside Europe, only Fifa, not Uefa, could intervene or regulate. The PIF situation is all the more striking in that context.
Fifa statutes do include a general obligation for member associations to ensure that the same group or person don’t have control over several clubs or to act whenever the integrity of any match or competition could be jeopardised. The current regulatory framework nevertheless places the onus for that on the member associations to assess possible issues on a case-by-case basis.
Fifa could only really escalate if the member association felt there was an issue, something that is simply not going to happen with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation for obvious reasons.
The question might then become if other member associations felt they were significantly affected to complain to the global body, which could feasibly be the case with the FA.
That is however where this entire issue falls through fault-lines in the game, as well as a regulatory gap.
If Premier League clubs felt affected by the Newcastle ownership in this regard, they would have to go to the FA, but the confidence in the national association just isn’t there. One club source stated that they would always just go to the Premier League: “They think the FA are completely ineffective and only interested in the women’s game.”
The FA would naturally dispute this characterisation.
There is then the widening split between Uefa and Fifa, where some of the more suspicious sources in the European confederation believe the Saudi Pro League destabilising the Champions League completely suits Gianni Infantino’s regime.
The Fifa president’s own good relationship with Saudi Arabia is constantly pointed out, and the Club World Cup is due to be held in Riyadh for the first time in December. It also plays into Fifa’s ambition for the spread of wealth outside western European football, even if many would point out how hundreds of millions have just gone straight back into the Premier League in transfer fees to consolidate its position at the peak of the game.
Newcastle might similarly argue they didn’t see such benefits.
There are still figures within Fifa who are conscious of this potential issue, especially as the confederation embarks on a reform of the agent industry precisely in order to bring the transfer market under control.
“It’s a challenge for our rules as well,” one source says, “and has to be on our radar.”
The expectation is that this summer is going to be so much more than a blip.