Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr has rightly been met with contrasting views about the player, his past comments regarding himself, and where he goes from here. But amidst the talk about whether the Portuguese has finally accepted his fate due to the pangs of age or whether he has made a purely economic decision, the idea that the transfer has larger forces at play is being ignored. The 37-year-old’s signing and usage by Al Nassr might be the most obvious representation of how geopolitical football is becoming.
To be true, football has always been intertwined with politics in one way or another. From the hosting of World Cup in Italy in 1934—Argentina doing the same in 1978—to FIFA constantly changing its stances over issues to favour host nations and Emmanuel Macron trying to earn brownie points off Kylian Mbappé’s disappointment in Qatar, the signals have been very obvious right from the game’s inception. But in an economic sense, football has never been bigger and more globalised than what it is today, so it is only natural that the scale and size of shareholders has increased as the upper reaches of the sport pulls away even from the millionaires of this world.
Social media’s role in making football much larger and permeative than ever has been vital, and its boom has coincided with the era dominated by Ronaldo and Leo Messi — a privilege that was not afforded to the legends of the past. This will ensure Messi and Ronaldo forever remain the first global superstars of the billionaire game because of where they lie in the timeline of technology. It is rather fitting that today they are the very emblems of the game’s evolving dynamic in a geopolitical domain.
With Messi operating close to Qatar and its staple football club in Paris Saint-Germain, Mohammed bin Salman’s move to work with Ronaldo is a highly strategic one, considering how the diplomatic warfare between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is often referred to as the New Arab Cold War. In 2017, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that comprised Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates severed ties with Qatar for its alleged act of embracing so-called terrorist and sectarian groups.
Later, in 2018, Jamal Khashoggi’s infamous murder also brought the rivalry out into the open as Qatar supported Turkey’s investigations. While there was talk of tensions between the two nations easing when Bin Salman invited Qatar’s emir to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s annual summit, the rivalry again broke out into the open through football in 2019 when Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), nearly completed its takeover of Newcastle United.
Initially, the PIF’s takeover had collapsed due to piracy issues involving beIN Sports, a global channel owned by Qatar and chaired by Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who is also the chairman of Paris Saint-Germain. The issue had roots back in 2017 itself, as Saudi had banned the sale of beIN broadcast boxes and prohibited existing customers from paying their subscriptions. As an alternate resort to watch sports and football from across the globe, a website called “beoutQ” was launched in the country, and while it started off as a website, it later evolved into a sophisticated network that included up to ten sports channels. Bogus claims were made that beoutQ was backed by consortiums in Cuba and Colombia, but research by the Premier League and other organisations revealed that it used Arabsat satellites and repackaged beIN coverages.
The Magpies’ takeover was, therefore, delayed for many months as Qatar launched a US$1bn arbitration claim over pirate broadcasts by beoutQ. The Saudi ban on beIN was ultimately lifted, though, which allowed the Newcastle United takeover to go through. The club has since been used constantly as a means to flaunt a pro-Saudi image. It isn’t rare to witness Saudi Arabia flags adorning St James’ Park whenever Eddie Howe’s men take to the pitch. There remain, however, accusations that Saudi had banned beIN coverage of the Qatar World Cup last year.
These are clear signs that geopolitics has made inroads into the enlarging football broadcasting market, which, according to Deloitte, was the highest contributor to the game’s economy in 2022. And while Cristiano Ronaldo may well be on the decline, he is one of the most followed athletes in the social media era and is, therefore, set to provide a massive boost to Saudi’s footballing strength, even though Qatar continues to dominate the broadcasting scene through beIN, Messi, Neymar and Mbappé. Messi himself is an ambassador for VisitSaudi, and Qatar Airways was one of Barcelona’s key sponsors when the Argentine was at the Nou Camp.
Both nations have also launched long-term plans to make sure that their dependence on oil and oil-led international networks reduces. Qatar has the Qatar National Vision 2030, while Bin Salman’s plan of Vision 2030 aims to make sure that the country adopts a path of faster modernisation, which is reflected by investment in sports and entertainment events such as WWE, Formula One and the Supercoppa Italiana. The creation of Neom, Saudi Arabia’s pet smart-city project, is also a clear indicator of the kingdom’s future plans that tie into Vision 2030.
The politics around hosting of the FIFA World Cup are just as emblematic of the increasingly politically-volatile nature of football. Saudi Arabia is looking to host the first-ever World Cup that takes place across three continents as it looks to tie up with Greece and Egypt for the 2030 edition of the tournament, essentially responding to Qatar’s carnival of 2022. It won’t be a surprise to see Saudi Arabia exceed the humongous amount that Qatar spent to host the tournament and for Ronaldo to become the face of the bid, just like how Qatar had sought validation through the signings of Neymar, Mbappé and Messi at PSG.
All of that indirectly ties into how Saudi will attract an innumerable number of international sponsors and business partners without the direct or open involvement of oil-trade deals, just like Qatar did. Ronaldo’s signature will do the same because of his marketability and the sponsorship deals he can attract on his own. While it is also a valid example of soft power and sportswashing, the involvement of the other aforementioned aspects can’t be discounted.
As we continue to debate about the player or the man Ronaldo is, it is equally vital, if not more, to know that the transfer may very well define how world politics and economy is currently functioning.