Saudi Arabia has significant wealth and aspirations. The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, envisions his country becoming the cultural equivalent of Europe within a decade. As part of this strategy, football holds great importance. The prince aims to rival the Champions League by heavily investing in European star players. Notably, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Karim Benzema now earn exorbitant salaries while playing in Saudi Arabia. It is likely that other players over the age of 30 will also make the move.
It appears that the 2034 men’s World Cup will likely take place in Saudi Arabia as the decision has been virtually confirmed by Gianni Infantino on his Instagram account. The ongoing process suggests that FIFA may prioritize financial considerations when selecting host countries, as evidenced by their new top sponsor, Aramco, which is owned by the Saudi state. It is necessary to have the financial means to support such a large-scale event; for instance, Qatar reportedly spent over $200 billion (£159 billion) on the 2022 World Cup. With 48 countries instead of 32 participating in the tournament, it is expected that the costs will be even higher in 11 years’ time.
This is reminiscent of a previous situation. Approximately a decade ago, a different nation attempted to advance their geopolitical agenda through the sport of football. China spent exorbitant amounts of money on acquiring older players from Europe. The leader of the Communist party, Xi Jinping, expressed his desire to host the men’s World Cup and instructed the national team to aim for winning the championship.
From a political standpoint, China holds significance, but its focus is not on football. Football thrives in environments where anyone can participate, where a sense of dedication is fostered by the community, and where there is democratic organization. Building such a community takes time and cannot be achieved solely through money and foreign players. This is why I am skeptical about Saudi Arabia’s attempts to catch up with European football. In Europe, football has been a cultural treasure for over 150 years, with its roots in cities like Glasgow, Sheffield, Geneva, London, Budapest, Barcelona, Milan, Nuremberg, and Vienna, and branches extending to places like Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It has a deep connection to the labor movement and its foundation lies within associations where people come together to organize their lives. This fundamental aspect remains unchanged to this day.
As a professional soccer player, I recognized that society played a pivotal role in my success. That’s why, as the director of the Uefa Euro 2024 tournament, it is important to me to support grassroots clubs through my foundation, both structurally and financially. Those who begin playing soccer at a young age are reliant on the dedication of volunteers who educate children and youth. It takes a team of individuals, including presidents, coaches, and secretaries, to create opportunities for both genders to play from a young age to adulthood. Soccer is a sport that is deeply ingrained in our nation.
The USA is a nation that is making significant investments to improve their presence in European football. They have a higher chance of success compared to other nations. In the 1970s, the New York Cosmos acquired renowned players such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Johan Neeskens. Since then, there has been steady progress and growth. The fanbase, number of players, and coaches have all increased yearly, partly due to the contribution of immigrants from Latin America. Furthermore, the USA hosted the men’s World Cup in 1994 and is set to co-host the upcoming tournament in three years with Mexico and Canada.
The Americans are highly knowledgeable about sports and view stadiums as sacred places. They excel at celebrating events. The leaders of Bayern Munich frequently travel to the US to gain insight on effective merchandising and marketing strategies. A prime example of success in this area can be found close to home: female American football players have dominated the world stage for many years.
Football’s music continues to resound in Europe, with European teams consistently emerging victorious in the Club World Cup. American entrepreneurs are aware of this trend and therefore, they choose to invest in top European leagues such as the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga to gain insights. However, there is a possibility that a turning point is on the horizon, giving rise to new powerhouses that can challenge the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City, and Bayern.
The United States has a distinct sporting culture that is intertwined with public schooling and, like many aspects of American life, heavily influenced by the business world. The major leagues were originally established with the aim of providing entertainment. In Europe, sports have developed more organically as a result of personal leisure activities. However, both models share cultural connections. These sports are not manufactured, but rather have a genuine appeal that resonates with the millions who participate. Football, or soccer, is deeply ingrained in European society and is gaining popularity in the US. A cross-continental approach would not be a challenge; as evidenced by two NFL games that recently took place in a sold-out Bundesliga stadium in Frankfurt, Germany.
Europe needs to find a solution to compete with the US, especially since South America, the second most successful continent in football after Europe, is in close proximity. A player from Argentina or Brazil would no longer have to go to Spain or Portugal, but could instead choose to go to San Francisco, Atlanta or Miami. This task may be more relatable for many people than 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.
This piece was written by Philipp Lahm in collaboration with Oliver Fritsch from Zeit Online, a German digital publication.