There is suddenly a little bit of tension about one of the most ambitious plans in football. High-placed sources say this week brings a lot of discussion between Saudi Arabian representatives and those of top players in order to try and convince them to join the planet’s most disruptive competition. Some involved see it as a key period for the Saudi Pro League in terms of keeping the momentum going by getting truly big players.
Interest in Neymar and David De Gea is now well known, but representatives are also looking at Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, and there are offers for a series of Chelsea players. Among them are N’Golo Kante, Edouard Mendy, Romelu Lukaku, Kalidou Koulibaly, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Hakim Ziyech.
It would represent quite the analgesic for what had been a real headache at Stamford Bridge. Throughout the last few months, the major question at Stamford Bridge, beyond the manager, was who was going to buy the players they needed to sell to trim the squad and meet Financial Fair Play requirements. Everyone “knew they were coming”, to use the industry phrase. Clubs were going to go in low and well under the asking price, as Manchester United have attempted with Mason Mount.
Now, a solution has suddenly presented itself. Chelsea could clear a lot of players for big money, allowing Mauricio Pochettino a much cleaner slate to start working with.
It has raised a lot of chatter within the game as well as outside. Football officials have privately pointed to the strong relationship between Chelsea majority owners Clearlake and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund [PIF], who have billions of pounds worth of assets managed by the American firm.
Many within the game are now asking about Saudi influence on Chelsea but it has long been stressed there was no involvement in Clearlake’s 2022 purchase, and consequently no concern about potential conflicts of interest given the ownership of Newcastle United. The Owners and Directors test would also require that any influence be declared. It is being insisted now at Stamford Bridge that the only discussions taking place are “transactional conversations about players they’re interested in”.
Chelsea and the Premier League have been approached for comment.
The London club look to have just benefitted from good timing, although the biggest question now is how many players will actually be convinced to move, and “what actually gets done”. Lukaku is already reluctant. Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva would be unlikely to even consider a proposal if it arrives.
The very fact such discussions are being had does raise two wider issues for the game.
One, in the abstract, is the growing influence of private equity in football. Part of the reason such questions are being asked is that it’s unclear what money funds private equity in such takeovers. The Premier League, for example, doesn’t have to know.
There are an increasing number of people in football who see private equity’s influence – going right up to possible deals with Serie A and La Liga – as just as problematic as state ownership, especially with how the potential is there for the two to overlap.
There is then the big story of the summer, which revolves around one of the most ambitious and biggest of those states. Offers from the Saudi Pro League are expected to escalate in the next few weeks, as this is viewed as a key stage of the project. Bringing Ruben Neves from Wolves was a coup but they want bigger than that.
It is also why there was some disappointment about the “complacency” of Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin about the extent the Saudi Pro League’s growth could distort the game.
The Slovenian official gave an interview in the Netherlands on the eve of the Nations League final, in which he said the European game should not be concerned about any player exodus.
“No, no, no… I think that it’s mainly a mistake for Saudi Arabian football. Why is that a problem for them? Because they should invest in academies, they should bring coaches, and they should develop their own players.”
“The system of buying the players that almost ended their career is not the system that develops football. It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career.”
“Tell me one player who is top, top age and who starts his career and went to play in Saudi Arabia? But it’s not about money only. Players want to win top competitions. And top competition is in Europe.”
That question is something currently being tested, but a growing view is that Ceferin is wrong to make the comparison to China. Saudi Arabia has a much more developed football culture, with a good level of quality, and part of this project is improving that. There is then the wider issue of the football authorities’ general lack of regulation and foresight on the influence of states and private equity groups.
The next few days will nevertheless tell a lot, but this is really about the next few years.