Two things stood out about Karim Benzema’s arrival in Jeddah on Wednesday evening. The first was the look on his face. From the second his private jet touched down at King Abdulaziz International Airport to the moment — an unspecified but apparently inordinate time later — that he finally made it out into the Saudi Arabian night, Benzema looked distinctly baffled.
Perhaps it was just the effect of the long flight, or the lingering impact of what must have been a whirlwind few days, or the fact that people were talking to him in French, English, Spanish and Arabic, only three of which he actually speaks. His smile did not waver, but nor did the slight hint of confusion in his eyes.
It was there as he was hustled through the bright, echoing halls of the arrivals terminal, as he was seated in an ornate chair in some sort of conference room, fiddling with the yellow-and-black Al-Ittihad scarf that had been placed around his neck, as he was presented with two smiling, but wholly unidentified, children. Throughout, Benzema had the countenance of a man who had been recently startled.
More striking still, though, was that every single step of his journey was being documented. Not just by the cadre of official photographers and videographers — from Al-Ittihad, from the Saudi Premier League, from various news agencies — who were there to capture this transformative moment in both Saudi Arabian and global soccer, but by everyone who crossed his path.
Airport staff members were filming. Other passengers were filming. The children were filming. The various camera crews were filming one another, filming. These were not just devoted Al-Ittihad fans. It is a fair guess that some of them, at least, would not even consider themselves soccer fans. But no matter: Everyone still wanted their own little memento, their own footage of the moment Karim Benzema, the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, arrived in Jeddah.
That is the glamour he exudes, the spell he casts, the lure of his fame. And it is that, more than anything he does on the field, that Al-Ittihad will pay $400 million over three seasons to possess.
There are, broadly, two schools of thought on Saudi Arabia’s rapid, aggressive and lavish expansion into sports over the last seven years or so.
One — the one proffered by the Saudi authorities, and anyone who wants to find a justification for accepting the eye-watering salaries on offer — is that sports is a way to diversify the country’s economy away from oil, to encourage its citizens to be more active, to help build a more inclusive, more “modern” society.
The other, the one proclaimed by Saudi dissidents and by activist organizations both there and across the world, is perhaps best summed up by Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister, Loujaine, was arrested and sentenced to prison for advocating for Saudi women’s right to drive. Sports, in this telling, is being used as a distraction, a sleight of hand, a trick of the light.
“I think the Saudi government, the Saudi regime and Mohammed bin Salman, he wants people to think of Ronaldo when they think about Saudi,” she said, “and not about Khashoggi.”
They are not, of course, mutually exclusive: The Saudi government almost certainly does want to divert attention away from its human rights record, but that does not mean it does not want its people to be more active.
Likewise, the kingdom is doubtless conscious of the value of providing entertainment and spectacle for its young, sports-obsessed population — panem et circenses remains a powerful political motivation — while simultaneously hoping it can leverage its investment in soccer, culminating in a bid for the 2030 World Cup, for international influence.
Whatever the motivation, the impact has been outsized. The first sport to fall under Saudi Arabia’s thrall was, oddly, professional wrestling. Five years ago, the country’s sports minister signed a deal with World Wrestling Entertainment to produce a number of co-sponsored shows for the next 10 years. The money from that arrangement, according to “Ringmaster,” a fascinating biography of Vince McMahon, provides a considerable amount of W.W.E.’s operating budget.
Others happily followed the trail that sports entertainment — and, if we are honest, what is not sports entertainment these days? — first blazed. Saudi Arabia offers the richest purses in boxing. It is home to the most lucrative horse race on the planet. It has scooped up motor sports properties: Formula 1 races, MotoGP events and the World Rally Championship.
And then, of course, there is golf. No sport has been disrupted quite so much as golf by the sudden attention of the Public Investment Fund, which by bankrolling the insurgent LIV Golf series waged war on the more established P.G.A. Tour. This week brought an abrupt, unexpected cease-fire: After two years of bitter enmity, the two bodies would form an alliance, they revealed. It was presented, effectively, as a merger. It looked an awful lot like a takeover.
Soccer, though, remains the ultimate prize: Its unusual mix of wild, enduring popularity and entrenched, increasingly bananas tribalism makes it the surest vehicle imaginable for meeting all of the many and varied aims of the Saudi sporting project. But that also makes it the most treacherous ground.
Soccer is not, unlike Formula 1 and golf and professional wrestling, effectively a monopoly, where one omnipotent fief or suite of executives can make decisions for the entire sport. It is, instead, a Game of Thrones of competing power structures and individual interests. It is easy, too easy, to buy in to; it is impossible, when it comes down to it, to buy outright.
The Gulf monarchies that first set upon the sport as a way to achieve broader, geopolitical goals — Qatar and Abu Dhabi, Saudi’s neighbors and rivals — decided that the most effective way to invest in soccer was essentially to buy a team as an avatar for the state.
Abu Dhabi transformed Manchester City not only into a Premier League and European powerhouse, but also a commercial, political, diplomatic and real estate venture. City is more than just a billboard for its emirate. It serves as the vanguard of many of its business interests, too.
Qatar picked up Paris St.-Germain, bankrolled the French league to ensure its team had some people to play against, and set about building what is best thought of as a monument to its own self-regard. It signed the best players in the world. It hired and fired the coaches who could not make them work together. It alienated the club’s fans, again and again.
But none of that mattered, not only because it had its prestige property, but because it was simply the first step in a project that culminated — or at least the first stage of it culminated — with a P.S.G. player, Lionel Messi, clad in a bisht, lifting the World Cup in the great, golden bowl of Lusail last December.
Saudi Arabia has, of course, thrown its weight into that particular competitive space, too: The PIF owns a controlling stake in Newcastle United, the longstanding Premier League makeweight that will play in the Champions League next season for the first time in two decades.
But that approach is a volatile, uncertain one. There is no guarantee that Newcastle will be able to make the same smooth, exponential — if not uncontroversial — progress that Manchester City has these last few years. And even if it does, there is no guarantee it will make anyone popular. It does not quite work like that, as both Qatar and Abu Dhabi, to their chagrin, have found.
And while there can be no question that Saudi Arabia is a fervent soccer nation — its hordes of fans at the World Cup bore witness to that — it is fair to assume that the country’s rulers have no real interest in sports in a literal sense. They are not spending all of that money to compete. They are spending it to win, and those are not the same thing at all.
The signing of the French striker Benzema, then, represents a significant departure. He will be, in all likelihood, the first of many European stars to land in Jeddah and Riyadh. The PIF now controls four clubs in the Saudi Premier League. Its intention is to stock each of them with three high-profile, high-quality players.
N’golo Kanté seems likely to be the next in line. Wilfried Zaha, or Roberto Firmino, or David De Gea may follow. Others will come soon enough: Saudi soccer authorities have drawn up a list of possible targets, based largely on when their contracts in Europe expire, for the next few years. Each of them will be handed a contract far beyond their expectations. Each of them will be offered a house of their choice, most likely in perpetuity.
The temptation is to see this as simply another version of the summer of 2016, when the Chinese Super League briefly threatened to upturn soccer’s established order in a quixotic pursuit of sporting ambition. It is a comforting interpretation, at least for traditionalists: It marks the Saudi plan out as nothing more than a flash in the pan, a brief interlude that should be of no concern to the elite leagues of Europe.
That may, though, be a misreading. Increasingly, it is not clubs or leagues that move the needle, but players themselves. The one player Saudi Arabia has, thus far, failed to persuade is Lionel Messi. Given that he is an ambassador for the kingdom’s tourism authority, his disinclination to accept a unfathomably rich offer to live there might reasonably be considered a blow. (Though Messi did, in choosing to commit his future to Major League Soccer, come up with a fine advertising slogan for the Saudis: “If it had been about money, I’d have gone to Arabia or somewhere.” Put it on the posters.)
The offer that did convince him, from Inter Miami, was rooted in much the same logic. Messi, when he eventually signs, will not only be paid by the club, but he also is expected to be offered a discounted rate on an ownership stake in the M.L.S. team. Another part of the financial package will be provided by Apple, based on the logic that he will help sell a considerable number of streaming passes, and Adidas is expected to sweeten the deal, too.
Teams, of course, draw an audience. Competitions generate content. But, more than ever, it is players — or, more specifically, a select group of players, whose fame outstrips even the clubs they represent and the trophies they win — who command global attention, who move products, who are the greatest assets in the game. And the best thing, of course, is that players are one thing that money can absolutely buy. The industry of soccer, unlike the sport, is a game that is won, most of the time, by whoever has the deepest pockets.
Saudi Arabia has gone all in on that logic. It has committed nearly a billion dollars in salaries already, to no more than a handful of players. At first glance, it is hard not to be startled and dazed and, above all, baffled by the size of the numbers and the audacity of the approach. Such is the draw, the appeal, the power of the players, though, that it does not take too long before it starts to make sense.
The Fourth Wall
The line that connects the events in the parking garage and the airport terminal appears, on the surface, to be a pretty straight one. In the immediate aftermath of his Roma team’s defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League final, José Mourinho spotted Anthony Taylor, the referee, on his way out of the Puskas Arena in Budapest.
Just in case anyone had been starting to wonder if maybe the Portuguese manager was not so bad after all, Mourinho — an adult male human — spat a volley of invective in Taylor’s general direction, delivering a withering critique of his performance in the game in a convenient variety of languages, just to drive the message home.
A few hours later, as Taylor and his family walked through Budapest airport on their way back to England, they were greeted by what probably constituted a mob of Roma fans. They were jostled, jeered, abused, intimidated. The body that oversees refereeing in England described the scene as “unjustified and abhorrent.”
Not without cause, the quick consensus had it that blame for the incident lay squarely at Mourinho’s door. Urs Meier, a former referee, suggested that Mourinho should be banned from the game for a year for “throwing the referee at the fans.” A chorus of various commentators fulminated that the fans had merely been following his lead.
One element, though, was conspicuous by its absence in all this analysis: the role of the news media itself. Far too frequently, managers choose to blame their disappointment on the supposed failings of referees. Far too often, they are presented with a microphone and encouraged to pass the buck for their failings on to the only person on the field who is not trying to gain whatever advantage they can at any given moment.
But it is no good pretending that all of that happens in a vacuum. Someone hands them the microphone. Plenty of people earnestly jot down their words, type them up, and then send them out into the ether completely unchallenged, regardless of their legitimacy or not.
Mourinho was, doubtless, to some extent responsible for what happened to Taylor in Budapest. He has rarely shirked an opportunity to make life essentially intolerable for referees during his career. But he is not alone in that, and until the news media dispenses with its absurd pretense that it is an observer, rather than an active participant, it is hard to see how anything changes.
Up Next? The Final
That’s all for this week. Getting ready for the Champions League final? So are we. The Times will provide live coverage of Manchester City vs. Inter Milan on Saturday at nytimes.com.
Rory Smith is The Times’s chief soccer correspondent, based in Britain. He covers all aspects of European soccer and has reported from three World Cups, the Olympics, and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith
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