Saudi Arabia lacks community and political dignity to be a global football hub

<span>Photograph: Daniele Mascolo/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Daniele Mascolo/Reuters

Saudi Arabia is rich in money and ambitions. Its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, says his country will be the new Europe culturally in 10 years’ time. Football is an important part of his strategy. He wants to compete with the Champions League so is investing heavily in players who have become stars in Europe. Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema now play for absurd salaries in Saudi Arabia. A few others who have passed the age of 30 will undoubtedly follow them.

It seems to be a done deal that the 2034 men’s World Cup will be held in Saudi Arabia. Although the process is ongoing, Gianni Infantino has practically announced the decision on his Instagram account. Fifa’s new top sponsor, Aramco, is owned by the Saudi state, which is probably another indication that the organisation seems to pay particular attention to money when awarding tournaments. You have to be able to afford such a project; Qatar is said to have spent more than $200bn (£159bn) on the 2022 World Cup. The tournament will hardly cost less in 11 years’ time, especially as 48 instead of 32 countries will be taking part.

It all sounds familiar. Around 10 years ago, another country tried to pursue geopolitical interests with football. China bought ageing footballers from Europe for enormous sums of money. The general secretary of the Communist party, Xi Jinping, wanted to host the men’s World Cup and he set the national team the goal of becoming world champions.

Politically, China is important, but you don’t hear anything about football. It only works where participation is possible for everyone, where commitment comes from society’s centre, where it creates community and is organised democratically. You don’t build something like that overnight. It takes more than money and stars from abroad to catch up with European football. That’s why I’m also sceptical about Saudi Arabia. In Europe, football has been a cultural asset for a century and a half. Its roots lie in Glasgow, Sheffield, Geneva, London, Budapest, Barcelona, Milan, Nuremberg and Vienna, with offshoots in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It is historically interwoven with the labour movement. Its origin is the association. In it, people organise their lives together. This has not changed to this day.

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As a professional footballer, I realised that it was society that paved the way for me. That’s why, as tournament director of Uefa Euro 2024, it’s important to me to support clubs at grassroots level through my foundation – ideally, structurally and sometimes financially. Anyone who starts playing football at the age of four, five or six is dependent on men and women who educate children and young people of their own free will. It takes presidents, coaches, secretaries, a lot of people, to make it possible for both genders to play, from the bambini to the adults’ team. Football is a national sport.

There is another example of a nation that is trying to catch up with European football by investing heavily: the USA. I give it a much better chance. In the 70s, New York Cosmos bought Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Neeskens. Since then, there has been continuous development. The fanbase and the number of players and coaches have grown year on year, partly due to immigrants from Latin America. The USA hosted the men’s World Cup in 1994 and will co-host the tournament in three years’ time alongside Mexico and Canada.

The Americans know sport. The stadiums are temples. Nobody celebrates events better. The people in charge of Bayern Munich are always travelling to the US to understand how merchandising and marketing work. And the perfect role model is right on their doorstep: American female footballers have been the best in the world for decades.

The music in football still plays in Europe, with European clubs almost always winning the Club World Cup. American businessmen know this, so they invest in the Premier League, Serie A or La Liga in order to learn. But a tipping point may soon be reached, creating giants to rival Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern.

US sport has its own identity. It is part of public education and, like many things in America, big business. The major leagues were founded for the purpose of entertainment. In Europe, they have grown organically; sport is the result of private leisure activities. But the two models are culturally related. There is nothing artificial about them; the motivation of the millions and millions who take part comes from within. In Europe, football is deeply rooted in society, and increasingly so in the US. A transatlantic approach would be no problem; recently, two NFL games took place in Eintracht Frankfurt’s sold-out Bundesliga stadium.

Europe would have to come up with something – that would be good – to hold its own against the US. Especially as South America, the second most successful football continent after Europe, is nearby. A footballer from Argentina or Brazil would no longer have to go to Spain or Portugal, but could go to San Francisco, Atlanta or Miami. Many can identify more easily with this task than with the one in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia have qualified for the World Cup six times. It is the largest country in its region with 36 million inhabitants. The population is young. There is interest in football, and thousands of fans celebrated their team’s victory over Argentina at the World Cup in Qatar. Saudi Arabia would have deserved a chance. But under different political conditions, because football culture is a form of human dignity.

Philipp Lahm’s column was produced in partnership with Oliver Fritsch at Zeit Online, the German online magazine.