Two things stood out about Karim Benzema’s arrival in Jeddah on Wednesday evening. First, the expression on his face. From the second his private jet touched down at King Abdulaziz International Airport to the moment — an unspecified but apparently inordinate time later — that he finally made it out into the Saudi Arabian night, Benzema looked distinctly baffled.
It could have been the effects of the long trip, the impact of a hectic few days or that everyone was speaking to him in French or English or Spanish. and Only three Arabic dialects does he speak. The smile on his face did not change, nor did the hint of confusion that was in his eyes.
He was fiddling around with his yellow-colored phone while he was being hurried through the halls and echoes of the airport arrivals terminal.and-black Al-Ittihad scarves that were placed around his throat, while he was being presented with smiling but unidentified children. Benzema’s face was that of a person who has just been startled.
It was also striking that the entire trip was documented. It’s not just the official photographers and videographers — from Al-Ittihad, from the Saudi Premier League, from various news agencies — who were there to capture this transformative moment in both Saudi Arabian and Everyone who crosses his path will be able to enjoy global football.
Staff members at the airport were recording. Some passengers also filmed. Children were also filming. The different camera crews were all filming each other. They were not only Al-Ittihad supporters. Some of these people may not have even considered themselves to be soccer fans. But no matter: Everyone still wanted their own little memento, their own footage of the moment Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, arrived in Jeddah.
It is his charisma, charm, and fame that will draw you in. Al-Ittihad wants to own him for that reason, not his performance on the field.
There are, broadly, two schools of thought on Saudi Arabia’s rapid, aggressive and In the past seven or eight years, sports have seen a massive expansion.
One — the one proffered by the Saudi authorities, and anyone who wants to find a justification for accepting the eye-watering salaries on offer — is that sports is a way to diversify the country’s economy away from oil, to encourage its citizens to be more active, to help build a more inclusive, more “modern” society.
Other, as declared by Saudi dissidents and There are activist groups both in the United States and abroad. and Lina al Hathloul can perhaps be best described by her sister Loujaine who was detained. and sentenced to prison for advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive. This story portrays sports as an excuse to divert attention, a light trick, or even a way of gaining a false impression.
“I think the Saudi government, the Saudi regime and Mohammed bin Salman, he wants people to think of Ronaldo when they think about Saudi,” She said “and not about Khashoggi.”
It is not mutually exclusive that the Saudi government wants to distract attention from its record on human rights, but it also wants its citizens to become more involved.
The kingdom also knows the importance of entertainment. and spectacle for its young, sports-obsessed population — panem et circenses remains a powerful political motivation — while simultaneously hoping it can leverage its investment in soccer, culminating in a bid for the 2030 World Cup, for international influence.
Whatever the motive, the effect has been huge. The first sport to fall under Saudi Arabia’s thrall was, oddly, professional wrestling. Five years ago, the country’s sports minister signed a deal with World Wrestling Entertainment To produce several co-sponsored events for the next ten years. According to the money that was made from this arrangement “Ringmaster,” a fascinating biography of Vince McMahon, provides a considerable amount of W.W.E.’s operating budget.
Others happily followed the trail that sports entertainment — andWhat is sports entertainment today? — first blazed. Saudi Arabia is offering the richest purses in boxing. The most profitable horse race in the world is held there. Formula 1 racing is one of the motorsport properties it has purchased. MotoGP events and the World Rally Championship.
Then there’s golf. Golf has never been so disrupted by sudden interest from the Public Investment Fund. By funding the LIV Golf Series, the Public Investment Fund waged war against the established P.G.A. Tour. The sudden, unplanned ceasefire that occurred this week was unexpected. After bitter rivalry for two years, both bodies announced they would be forming an alliance. This was presented as a merger. This looked a lot like an acquisition.
The ultimate soccer prize is its unique mix of wild and enduring popularity and The entrenched and increasingly bananas tribealism is the best vehicle to meet all the needs. and Saudi Arabia’s sporting project is a diverse undertaking. This makes it one of the most hazardous grounds.
Formula 1 is Formula 1, but soccer isn’t it and golf and It is not surprising that professional wrestling has become a form of monopoly. One omnipotent fife or group of executives controls the sport. Instead, it is a Game of Thrones of rival power structures and Individual interests When it comes to it, it’s impossible to purchase outright. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype, but it’s not easy to do.
The Gulf monarchies that first set upon the sport as a way to achieve broader, geopolitical goals — Qatar and Abu Dhabi, Saudi’s neighbors and rivals — decided that the most effective way to invest in soccer was essentially to buy a team as an avatar for the state.
Abu Dhabi has transformed Manchester City into more than just a Premier League team and European powerhouse is also a political, commercial and diplomatic force. and real estate venture. The city is much more than a mere billboard. The city is also the hub of many business activities.
Qatar bankrolled France’s league and bought Paris St-Germain to give its team some players to face. and It began to build what can be best described as a monument of its own arrogance. It hired the top players on the planet. It recruited and The coaches were fired if they couldn’t work together. It alienated the club’s fans, again and again.
But none of that mattered, not only because it had its prestige property, but because it was simply the first step in a project that culminated — or at least the first stage of it culminated — with a P.S.G. player, Lionel MessiLast December, wearing a bicht, she lifted the World Cup from the golden bowl at Lusail.
Saudi Arabia, of course has also thrown in its weight in that competitive area: the PIF holds a majority stake in Newcastle United – the Premier League’s longtime makeweight who will be playing in the Champions League for the first season in 20 years next year.
It is an approach that can be volatile and unpredictable. There is no guarantee that Newcastle will be able to make the same smooth, exponential — if not uncontroversial — progress that Manchester City has these last few years. Even if they do, it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will be popular. Qatar şi Kuwait are two examples of how it does not work that way. and Abu Dhabi is astonished to find out.
And while there can be no question that Saudi Arabia is a fervent soccer nation — its hordes of fans at the World Cup bore witness to that — it is fair to assume that the country’s rulers have no real interest in sports in a literal sense. All of the money they spend isn’t to compete. The money is spent to compete. and They aren’t the same.
Signing the French striker Benzema is a major departure. It is likely that he will be the first European star to arrive in Jeddah. and Riyadh. PIF has now taken control of four clubs that compete in the Saudi Premier League. Each club will be stocked with three players of high quality and profile.
N’golo Kanté seems likely to be the next in line. Wilfried Zaha or Roberto Firmino or David De Gea could follow. Saudi authorities are preparing a long list for future targets based mainly on the expiration dates of their European contracts. The contracts they will receive are beyond what their hopes were. They will each be given a home of their choosing, probably for life.
The temptation is to see this as simply another version of the summer of 2016, when the Chinese Super League briefly threatened to upturn soccer’s established order in a quixotic pursuit of sporting ambition. This interpretation is comforting, especially for those who are traditionalists. It shows that the Saudi plan was a mere flash in the pan and a short interlude, which should not be of concern to Europe’s elite leagues.
This may be an incorrect reading. It is the players, not clubs, that are driving change. Lionel has been the one player Saudi Arabia is yet to win over. Messi. Given that he is an ambassador for the kingdom’s tourism authority, his disinclination to accept a unfathomably rich offer to live there might reasonably be considered a blow. (Though Messi When he chose to dedicate his future to Major League Soccer, did he come up with the perfect advertising slogan for it? Saudis: “If it had been about money, I’d have gone to Arabia or somewhere.” Posters are a great way to promote your business.
Inter Miami made him an offer that was similar to the logic he used in his decision. MessiWhen he signs with the team, he will be not only paid, but also offered a discount on acquiring a stake in M.L.S. team. Apple is also expected to contribute a portion of the funding package based on his logic of helping sell an impressive number of streaming pass. and Adidas will also likely sweeten up the offer.
Obviously, teams attract an audience. Competitions create content. But, more than ever, it is players — or, more specifically, a select group of players, whose fame outstrips even the clubs they represent and the trophies they win — who command global attention, who move products, who are the greatest assets in the game. Money can buy anything, including players. Soccer is not a sport that can be won by anyone, but the industry is.
Saudi Arabia is all-in on this logic. Only a small number of footballers have received nearly one billion dollars. On first impression, one cannot help but be shocked. and Dazed andAbove all else, I am baffled by how large the numbers are and The audacity is the key. The players are so powerful, they have such a strong appeal that the approach is not long in coming to sense.
This line connects all the activities in the garage. and On the surface, the terminal of the airport looks pretty straightforward. In the immediate aftermath of his Roma team’s defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League final, José Mourinho spotted Anthony Taylor, the referee, on his way out of the Puskas Arena in Budapest.
Just in case anyone had been starting to wonder if maybe the Portuguese manager was not so bad after all, Mourinho — an adult male human — spat a volley of invective in Taylor’s general direction, delivering a withering critique of his performance in the game in a convenient variety of languages, just to drive the message home.
Taylor returned to the scene a couple of hours later. and When his family was walking through the Budapest airport to return to England, they encountered what appeared as a mob made up of Roma supporters. It was a scuffle, there were jeers, abuse and threats. The English body responsible for refereeing described the incident as “unjustified and abhorrent.”
Not without cause, the quick consensus had it that blame for the incident lay squarely at Mourinho’s door. Urs Mier, former referee suggested Mourinho’s suspension from the sport for an entire year. “throwing the referee at the fans.” A number of commentators claimed that fans were simply following him.
In all of this, one aspect was missing: the media’s role. Too often, managers blame referees’ supposed failures as the reason for their frustration. Too often they’re given a mic and Encouraged to blame the other team member for failings.
No one can pretend all that happened in a vacuum. Someone gives them the mic. Many people take the time to write down or type up their thoughts. and Then, send these messages out in the ether without any challenge to their validity.
Mourinho is, without a doubt, responsible in some way for the events that occurred to Taylor at Budapest. He rarely missed an opportunity during his career to make referees’ lives a living hell. He isn’t the only one who does this. and It is difficult to imagine any real change until the media stops pretending that they are an observer and not an active participant.
The Next Step? What’s Next?
That’s all for this week. Are you ready for the Champions League Final? Are you? The Times will be providing live coverage for Manchester City and Inter Milan at nytimes.com on Saturday.