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Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next

Karim Benzema - Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next - Reuters/Al Ittihad

Lionel Messi decided Saudi Arabia wasn’t for him, but the state’s Pro League is already busily working through its Plan B of ageing superstars.

Well-placed sources insist there will be “no trolley dash for mercenaries” like the disastrous Chinese race for blockbuster names almost a decade ago. However, a cast of at least 10 blockbuster targets has been identified in an everyone-has-a-price approach previously adopted at LIV Golf.

Messi’s proposed £320 million-a-year offer with Al-Hilal, revealed by Telegraph Sport last month, was not enough to lure the World Cup winner to the Middle East and instead he is off to the US to capitalise on the Land of Opportunity.

Instead, Saudi Arabia secured the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, as Karim Benzema finalised talks with Al-Ittihad this week.

Sovereign wealth fund takeovers at four state clubs in recent days could also strengthen efforts to sign N’Golo Kanté in a proposed £86.2 million-a-year package, and he is likely to join his fellow Frenchman at Al-Ittihad.

N’Golo Kanté (R) - Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next - Getty Images/Mark Enfield
N’Golo Kanté (R) - Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next - Getty Images/Mark Enfield

Talks are also taking place with the representatives of Hugo Lloris, Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Angel Di Maria and Roberto Firmino.

But Saudi insiders insist there is a carefully adopted plan behind the eye-catching potential deals this summer. Former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook has been masterminding efforts to professionalise the competition during his brief spell with the league.

After only five months in Riyadh, he is set to return to English football, as CEO of Birmingham City. However, he played an integral part in drawing up initial targets, in which the state leads brokering before deciding an eventual club. The Pro League knows only a minority will eventually sign.

Over the coming seasons, the plan is to lessen the emphasis on ageing superstars on their last contracts and instead target players who have only recently passed 30 in the coming years

However, the perceived success by the Crown Prince after the Cristiano Ronaldo deal in December has emboldened ambitions to get at least a couple of eye-catching deals done relatively quickly.

Cristiano Ronaldo - Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next - Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
Cristiano Ronaldo - Saudi Arabia are building LIV Football before our eyes – here’s what comes next - Reuters/Ahmed Yosri

Since Ronaldo signed, Saudi Pro League attendances have almost doubled year on year. There is a big focus on players’ digital fanbase. State officials said “conversation” about the league amongst women and girls on social media has surged 237 per cent in the past six months.

In this state that still beheads its alleged criminals, sports-washing is only part of the potential benefits to bringing the stellar names over. As it stands, the government effectively underwrites all professional clubs.

This week four of the kingdom’s top clubs were taken over completely by the Public Investment Fund [PIF] as part of plans to eventually privatise them and their potential growth in value is now more important than ever.

PIF will own 75 per cent of Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Nassr, and Al-Hilal, the sports ministry said on Twitter, as part of a plan to encourage companies and development agencies to invest in and take over clubs.

As part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030, there are aims for the revenue of the league to increase to £400 million annually by 2030. Such figures seem enormous for a competition in which most teams might struggle in League One.

However, state sources pointed to the rapid success at Newcastle in recent years that they say shows Western scepticism is being overcome.

Turning the domestic league into an international force is just part of a grander, significantly more ambitious scheme that will see the nation attempt to bring the World Cup to the Middle East again - whatever the cost.

The country had been prioritising a potential 2030 bid, having privately offered to pay for new sports stadiums in Greece and Egypt if they agreed to team up with the nation.

However a potential Spain, Portugal, Ukraine and Morocco bid is seen by some as a potential favourite. Saudi is understood to be willing to explore 2034 as a potential alternative.

It will take billions to transform the nation for a World Cup. That context somewhat dims the immediate absurdity of the £200 million-a-year fees being demanded by Benzema and Co.