In the meantime, it is also dawning on some in the Bundesliga: Saudi Arabia is becoming a threat to European football. So far this summer, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has flooded the transfer market with hundreds of millions of euros. After Cristiano Ronaldo, he has won veteran stars like Karim Benzema, Riyad Mahrez and Jordan Henderson for the Saudi Pro League, he has brought the young German coach Matthias Jaissle from Salzburg to Al-Ahli FC and is said to have prepared an offer totaling one billion euros to sign the best player of the moment, Frenchman Kylian Mbappé.
Just a few years ago, such a sum would have been relegated to the realm of fantasy, even in turbo-capitalist football. Now Sebastian Kehl, the sporting director of Borussia Dortmund, says in an interview with “Kicker”: “If things continue like this, football will develop in a direction that will definitely cause it great damage.”
Emotions are unpredictable
But Saudi Arabia is not the problem. The country is only the amplifier of a development that started years ago: there are more and more players who are bigger than most clubs in Europe. Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappé – these three together now have 1.185 billion followers on Instagram alone. That is more than twice as many as Bayern Munich, Manchester United, FC Liverpool, Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain together (around 480 million followers) unite behind them. The emotional capital of a football club is not passed on from one generation of fans to the next as a matter of course, emotions are unpredictable – and sometimes they just disappear.
Viewing habits are also changing. Video snippets of the most beautiful goals signature moves individual players go viral weekend after weekend. The ratings for the sports show, on the other hand, continue to decline. Until now, titles in Europe – the championship in the Bundesliga or Premier League, the title in the Champions League – have been a currency comparable to pounds or euros for players. That this certainty remains must be questioned. After all, professionals like the 26-year-old Brazilian Malcolm or the 26-year-old Frenchman Allan Saint-Maximin are now also drawn to Saudi Arabia in the prime of their creative power.
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Where this can lead can be seen in Formula 1. Traditional racetracks like the Hockenheimring or the Nürburgring have long since disappeared from the calendar. For this purpose, races in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been included in the World Cup calendar for a fee of millions. Anyone who visits them will feel little of the thousand and one night magic that the partially illuminated racetracks promise on the screen: on the television or – with one click – on the smartphone. Where the races are held is of secondary importance to most. Much more important are: spectacular images polished to a high gloss.
They are part of the sports washing that Saudi Arabia also does. In the medium term, the soccer World Cup is to be brought to the country, Ronaldo even believes that the league will be among the top five leagues in the world within the next five years. A few months ago, one or the other may have smiled mildly at this, but sentences like these should now also be understood as a warning to European football: what was, doesn’t always have to stay the way it is.