Saudi Soccer League Creates Huge Fund to Sign Global Stars

Since Ronaldo arrived, the Saudi league has been considering whether to centrally coordinate more big-money signings in order to distribute talent evenly among the biggest teams, according to interviews with agents, television executives, Saudi sports officials and consultants hired to execute the project, the details of which have not previously been reported. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the deals involved were private.

In recent weeks, leaks about huge offers to famous players have mounted: Lionel Messi, who led Argentina to the World Cup title in December, is said to have been tempted by a contract even richer than Ronaldo’s Saudi deal; and the French striker Karim Benzema, the reigning world player of the year, has reportedly agreed to leave Real Madrid for a nine-figure deal to play in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi league’s British chief executive, Garry Cook, a former Nike executive who briefly ran Manchester City after it was bought by the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, has been tasked with executing the plans. Cook did not respond to an email seeking comment. League officials also did not respond to requests for comment about the plans.

The project comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong performance by Saudi Arabia at last year’s men’s World Cup in Qatar. The team’s run included a stunning victory over the eventual champion, Argentina, which stoked pride on the Saudi streets and in the halls of power in Riyadh. The project’s goal is not so much to make the Saudi league an equal of century-old competitions like England’s Premier League or other top European competitions, but to increase Saudi influence in the sport, and perhaps boost its profile as it bids for the 2030 World Cup.

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