Football. Saudi Arabia and US put pressure on Europe over FIFA

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar brought together countries from around the world, with 1.5 billion people tuning in to watch the final. But while football is a source of local pride, passion, personal and community identity around the world, its official governing institution is in Europe.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), founded in Paris in 1904 and now based in Switzerland, oversees the promotion and development of football internationally, from rule changes to hosting rights for major tournaments.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), together with the English Premier League (EPL), German Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1, play an important role in world football and generate significant revenue for FIFA.

European clubs and national teams attract the best talent and through “sports diplomacy” can project their cultural, political and economic interests around the world and influence FIFA.

This area has long been a source of criticism. In 1966, African teams staged a boycott to protest their lack of representation at the World Cup. UEFA and João Havelange, FIFA president from 1974 to 1998, have also become increasingly critical of each other, while Havelange’s successor Sepp Blatter criticized FIFA’s Eurocentric influence in 2015.

Recently, this line of criticism has become even more obvious. During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, European teams were reprimanded by FIFA for abandoning plans to wear pro-LGBTQ armbands, while teams affiliated to UEFA and FIFA clashed over human rights in Qatar in the run-up to the tournament.

But throughout 2023, Europe’s traditional dominance has been challenged by major developments in Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 program, announced in 2016, aims to diversify its economy and attract foreign investment. While hosting and sponsoring car tournaments, golf, boxing and other sports are part of this goal, football is the cornerstone of Riyadh’s attempts to represent and promote the country.

This charm offensive has prompted Western accusations of “sports whitewashing,” where sports are used to improve a country’s public image and divert attention from negative activities.

Like other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has acquired major European teams in recent years.

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bought Newcastle United in the Premier League in 2021, while Sheffield United, bought by the Saudis in 2013, will play in the Premier League again in the 2023-24 season.

The Saudis have also reportedly made a multi-billion-dollar bid for Chelsea, while tournaments such as the Italian Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup are increasingly being staged in Saudi Arabia.

However, Riyadh’s main sporting goal is to raise the profile of the Saudi Professional League (SPL). Backed by the oil-fuelled Public Investment Fund, the Saudis have invested heavily in the SPL, turning it into one of the most prestigious leagues in the world.

The investment has already paid off, with SPL side Al Hilal finishing second at the 2022 FIFA Club World Cup to Real Madrid.

In 2023, a series of high-profile deals in the SPL attracted top talent from Europe and around the world. Unbound by UEFA spending limits, Saudi clubs have snapped up players such as Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, Edouard Mendy of Senegal, Jordan Henderson of England, Gabri Veiga of Spain and Brazilian superstar Neymar.

While some are near the end of their careers, others are at the peak or early stages of their careers, and SPL clubs have also managed to attract high-profile managers.

There are growing concerns about Saudi Arabia’s influence on world football, with human rights issues often mentioned.

Due to these concerns, Saudi Arabia was banned from sponsoring the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023. However, upcoming efforts will continue to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position in world football, including hosting the FIFA Men’s Club World Cup in December 2023 and exploring the possibility of co-hosting the 2030 FIFA World Cup with Egypt and Greece with an offer to fund their new stadiums if three quarters their matches will be played in Saudi Arabia.

Amid Saudi Arabia’s growing efforts to influence FIFA and the global soccer scene, American organizations have also made great strides.

In the Premier League, eight of the 20 teams are now wholly or partly owned by the United States. However, as with Saudi Arabia, the main challenge to the United States’ dominance in European soccer comes from the growth of its domestic league, Major League Soccer (MLS). The league has seen steady growth for decades as it strives to tap into the potentially huge U.S. domestic market.

Following the success of the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States, the first MLS season began in 1996. MLS received a major boost in 2007 with the signing of English superstar David Beckham to LA Galaxy.

The contract introduced a designated player rule, which allows teams to go over the salary cap for certain players, and also included a clause allowing Beckham to purchase rights to an expansion team after his five-year contract expired.

Since then, MLS has grown from 13 to 29 teams, and Beckham is now part owner of Inter Miami, which signed Argentine Lionel Messi from French club Paris Saint-Germain in mid-2023. Messi’s contract includes a stake in Inter Miami, demonstrating how MLS continues to attract superstars by giving them a personal stake in the league.

After Messi arrived in MLS, the so-called “Messi effect” occurred. Inter Miami achieved record jersey sales, hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales and gained 14 million Instagram followers.

As of Sept. 7, Apple’s streaming service for MLS games had gained nearly 300,000 subscribers, with celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio, LeBron James and Prince Harry in attendance at recent games in Miami. Other football stars who have recently joined Miami include Messi’s former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

MLS’s growth has also been fueled by a significant increase in the Latino population since its inception in 1996, fueled by Latin America’s passion for the sport and the success of the U.S. women’s national team in recent years. To strengthen ties with Latin America, a new expanded League Cup between MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX began in 2023, won by Inter Miami.

The United States will host the 2024 Copa America in coordination with the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and the Confederation of South American Football (CONMEBOL). The USA, Mexico and Canada will also host the 2026 Men’s World Cup.

Young Americans are also increasingly interested in soccer, and in an effort to match European youth leagues, MLS launched MLS Next in 2020 (the Saudis launched their league in 2023). The United States now has the largest number of young soccer players playing leisurely, while European leagues are recruiting more and more talent from MLS.

FIFA is naturally interested in harnessing the growth potential of MLS.

The United States is already one of FIFA’s largest sources of World Cup revenue, both in terms of brand sponsorships and the number of citizens traveling to the World Cup. FIFA may also try to appease Washington.

In 2015, US officials launched a series of trials and investigations into corruption at FIFA, and in 2020 the Justice Department accused FIFA of accepting bribes from Qatar and Russia to secure World Cup bids.

However, both the SPL and MLS lag behind the top European leagues in terms of viewership.

Saudi Arabian and American football stadiums tend to be much smaller than their European counterparts, and their teams lack the prestige of established European teams.

Salaries in MLS are still lower than in Europe, and while some clubs have achieved financial success, more than half of MLS teams are still unprofitable. US sports culture still favors other sports, and both the EPL and Mexico’s Liga MX have larger audiences in the US than MLS.

UEFA’s dominance over FIFA also hampered previous objectives. The United States launched the International Soccer League in 1960, but it stalled after five years, overshadowed by the Intercontinental Cup featuring top teams from Europe and South America (which later became the FIFA Club World Cup). More recently, the Chinese Super League has faced difficulties due to huge investments since 2017.

However, historical discontent within UEFA has recently resurfaced.

Frustration led to two attempts – in 1998 and in 2021 – to create a separate “Super League” outside the control of FIFA and UEFA. The influx of money from Russia, the Gulf and the United States into European clubs in recent decades has played a key role in increasing dissatisfaction among major clubs with UEFA and its financial fair play rules.

UEFA chief Aleksandar Ceferin recently brushed aside concerns about SPL spending and remained silent on MLS. However, these simultaneous problems undermined Europe’s traditional dominance in world football.

There have also been suspicions that Chelsea owners Todd Boeley and US investment firm Clearlake Capital are sending Chelsea players to the SPL at inflated prices, highlighting how influential Saudi Arabian and US figures have become too European in the world of football.

The SPL and MLS could breathe new life into FIFA by allowing the organization’s resources to be distributed more fairly.

However, the significant influence of Saudi and American money in boosting their profile raises concerns that the decentralization of world football could simply shift the source of financial power from Europe into the hands of new players, potentially creating another set of problems. FIFA must manage these changes carefully, striving for true fairness without creating new imbalances.

* from Traveler


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