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Commentary: Singapore and Asia Can’t be Passive Observers as Saudi Arabia Reshapes Football

 Saudi Arabia is spending huge amounts of money in a bid to become a sporting superpower, leaving the world wondering what will happen next. For Singapore and the rest of Asia, it is an opportunity as much as a problem.

At the end of December 2022, Riyadh club Al-Nassr announced the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, a five-time Ballon D’Or winner who is regarded as one of the greatest players in football. The deal is said to be worth more than €400 million (US$437 million).

In June, newly crowned Saudi league champions Al-Ittihad added reigning Ballon D’Or winner Karim Benzema from Real Madrid and N’Golo Kante from Chelsea for another few hundred million euros.

While Lionel Messi passed on a reportedly blockbuster deal to play in Saudi, there is little doubt more huge names will be heading to the capital – the question is who they will be.

Offers have reportedly been made to stars such as Romelu Lukaku, Luka Modric, Neymar and more. Famous coaches such as Jose Mourinho and Zinedine Zidane have also reportedly been approached by Saudi but rejected the deals.


With such stars being offered hundreds of millions a year, this new development has caused even the biggest clubs in the world to sit up and take notice.

The Liverpool Echo’s headline summed it up: “Saudi Arabia transfer exodus could give Liverpool a big problem.”  

It is not just about spending big amounts on big names; the Chinese Super League did that in the previous decade with very mixed results.

Saudi Arabia has a long-term strategy to become one of the top 10 leagues in the world. In June, the country’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) took over control of the kingdom’s four biggest clubs Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahly.

There is a drive to develop these clubs into revenue-generating commercial entities which can challenge the big teams of Europe on and off the pitch in the years to come. 

According to reports, the kingdom wants to quadruple the Saudi Professional League’s annual revenue to 1.8 billion riyals (US$480 million) by 2030 from 450 million riyals currently. It also expects the League’s market value to rise to more than 8 billion riyals from 3 billion riyals over the same period.

If that sounds far-fetched, recent events in golf show that anything can happen.

In 2021, PIF founded LIV Golf, a new tour that attracted some of the biggest names in the sport. After 18 months of virtual war with the established PGA Tour in the United States, a split in the sport and numerous lawsuits, the golfing world was stunned on Jun 6 when the PGA announced it would merge with LIV Golf to create a global, yet to be named, competition.

It was a stunning demonstration of how, in sport, massive financial power can bring massive and rapid change.


Saudi Arabia has long been a sporting powerhouse in Asia but now has ambitions to become a global force in the coming years and decades.  

Singapore has also been wrestling with how to develop its football scene for years and this has become more critical after recent performances. In May, the Under-22 team failed to progress past the group stage at the SEA Games for the fifth consecutive time, a sorry campaign that ended with a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of bitter rivals Malaysia.

The senior side missed out on qualification for the 2023 Asian Cup unlike Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Singapore, four-time AFF Championship winners, have been eliminated in the first round in four of the past five editions of the regional tournament.

It means that any new development in Asian football has to be examined. Ultimately, it is Singapore’s choice in how it reacts to events in Riyadh.

“Strategically Singapore needs to decide very quickly as to what its position is on Saudi Arabia and the money flooding into sport generally there,” Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at SKEMA Business School, told me. “Does Singapore compete, or does it collaborate?”

Given the sums that will be needed to compete, the latter may be the best course of action especially as the Saudi Arabian Football Federation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with its Singapore counterpart last November to strengthen ties and further the development of the sport in each country.

For example, rumours that Saudi Arabia is considering establishing a new global football club competition could be an area to work together. “Given the predisposition towards certain European football teams in Singapore, it may create opportunities to collaborate with Saudi Arabia,” said Prof Chadwick.

Source : Channelnewsasia