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What Should We Make Of Chelsea’s Reported Saudi Bailout?

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Chelsea owner Todd Boehly gestures prior to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg match between Chelsea FC and Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2023 in London, United Kingdom.
Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images

For years, petrostate influence over European soccer has taken one consistent form: investment. These countries unlock their sovereign investment funds, either to buy a large chunk or the entirety of a big-time soccer club, and then leverage their godlike riches into acquiring elite players, building new stadiums, and pursuing the shiniest trophies. But as the Premier League's summer transfer window is set to open, it looks like the oil money has found a new way to seep into the western market.

By now you have no doubt heard about Saudi Arabia's occasionally successful attempts to lure aging superstar players into the country's professional league with ludicrous salary figures. Their biggest get to date, Cristiano Ronaldo, reportedly makes $75 million per year to play for Al Nassr FC. Leo Messi, who already has a lucrative partnership with the Saudi Arabia's tourism authority, reportedly turned down a $500 million contract from the Saudis in order to finish out his career in Miami. Meanwhile lesser stars, like James Rodríguez, have been choosing the Saudi Pro League (thanks to the huge contracts it can offer) as the place to wind down their careers.

A janky soccer league from a well-monied country deciding to use that money to attract some recognizable players isn't itself new. It was only a few years ago that the Chinese Super League went on a little European spending spree and brought some decent players over, leading to some mild anxiety about the established leagues being raided by a foreign power. Such fears were misplaced, because money might be able to buy Oscar and Axel Witsel, but it can't automatically buy a club a seat at the sport's most prestigious tables. So it's easy to roll your eyes at the Saudis grabbing a washed-up Ronaldo and getting stiff-armed by Messi, but one difference between Saudi Arabia and China is that the former already sits very close to the head of the table thanks to its ownership of Newcastle United and its relationships with other teams throughout Europe.

Chelsea should be in big trouble. The club finished 12th in the Premier League and has been on a years-long reckless spending spree that hasn't really slowed down since American billionaire Todd Boehly took over ownership last May. The roster is bloated, and if Chelsea wants to be competitive next season and also avoid any scrutiny related to potential Financial Fair Play violations, it will need to spend this summer selling off aging, underperforming players with huge salaries. Making those types of sales is the hardest thing to do in the transfer market, which is why Chelsea should be fucked. But, as The Telegraph reports, Saudi Arabia is poised to save the day, having sent representatives to London to discuss a deal to bring a handful of Chelsea's most burdensome players to the Saudi Pro League:

Representatives of the Saudi Pro League are in London this week in a bid to clinch agreements for a host of Chelsea players.

While Romelu Lukaku has rejected an offer from Saudi Arabia, negotiations are being held, at various different stages, for Hakim Ziyech, Kalidou Koulibaly, Edouard Mendy and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

It is thought that Chelsea were originally presented with a proposal for those five players to move to Saudi for one set fee that would probably have amounted to more than £100 million.

The handwringing over oil money's growing influence over European soccer is usually overstated—the sport being dominated by the richest clubs was the way of things long before any prince in Riyadh watched his first Premier League game—but here is an example in which that influence does feel particularly corrosive. The brazenness of the proposed bailout is one thing, as is the self-dealing—Boehly does a ton of business in Saudi Arabia, and Chelsea's majority shareholder, Clearlake Capital, has deep ties with the Saudi public investment fund—but it's the bloodlessness of the whole thing that really irks. Even the most cynically engineered transfers tend to offer up something to the concepts of entertainment and competition. Sure, it's annoying when an agent greases some palms and your team's annual transfer budget gets spent on a 33-year-old Real Madrid castoff, but at least he might bring a few spectacular goals with him.

But here, none of this is really about soccer. You'll notice in the Telegraph's reporting on this proposed deal that Chelsea hasn't been speaking to executives from various clubs in the Saudi Pro League, but to representatives from the league itself. Which specific teams these Chelsea players eventually end up on doesn't appear to be a concern here. They'll just be sprinkled around the league, I suppose, because entertainment and competition aren't what matters. The Saudi Pro League is shaping up a lot like LIV Golf—it's not meant to be an actual entertainment product worth anyone's time, effort, or attention, but rather an influence machine.

Selling any player from one league to another requires more than just money and desire. Transfers are primarily engineered through connections, those among agents, executives, managers, owners, and board members—an agent gets in good with a new owner by giving him free consultation on a few transfers, and then a year later when he needs someone to buy his aging client who can't get any playing time and comes with a huge salary, he knows who to call. This sort of "you scratch my back I scratch yours" dealmaking keeps the transfer market humming, and it's in this arena that Saudi Arabia now seems set to once again expand its influence.

So if you're the owner of a European soccer team, you opened the paper today and saw a good reason to answer the phone the next time someone from the Saudi PIF calls. Not only will you get the money that comes with their investment, either in your team or some other business venture, but now you've got access to a whole new sector of the transfer market that exists to bail you out of your worst contracts and keep FFP regulators off your back. Which teams those players go to, how their careers unfold, and what kind of experience they create for Saudi soccer fans isn't anything to think too hard about. All that matters is that a figure has been moved from one spreadsheet to another.

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