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Ronaldo in Riyadh, Messi in Miami and tussle to keep Salah in Liverpool: Football in grip of turf war between Arabia, America and Europe

A war minus shooting is playing out in football. At the heart of it is Saudi Arabia’s quest for power in the sport; challenging them is the United States’ Major League Soccer, masterminded by the ex-Galactico David Beckham; resisting the exodus to Arabia are the worried leagues of Europe. The fight of Saudi Arabia is against the establishment; Europe’s endeavour is to preserve the established; and America’s motive is to find an establishment of its own. Saudi Arabia and the US want to establish a football empire—football imperialism of sorts—whereas Europe desperately wants it to be the hub of football. A bloc from Latin America would have furnished a roundedness, perhaps it would in the foreseeable future.

But for now, it is all about Arabia, America and Europe. Like in the colonial-imperial days. The fight then was for territory, now it is for football, the soft power the game wields. Each group has well-defined promises. Europe gives a shot at footballing immortality; America, incredible riches and eye-blinking glamour; and Saudi, infinite wealth and unmatched luxury. It’s for the players to assess their priorities and choose what their heart desires.

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Before the Arabian invasion, the paths were different. The greatest of players would continue to inhabit Europe, the quest for another league title or Champions League or Ballon d’Or fueling them. Of course, it should be said their wages are still astronomical. Kylian Mbappe, the lone superstar in Europe, earns roughly 100 million pounds a year as wages alone. Those aware that their mind and body can no longer endure the rigours of Europe would embrace semi-retirement in the US. A few non-conformists would embark on the Middle East. Dry, barren, hot Middle East.

Then along came Saudi, weathering unseen and unheard riches. Though their invasion was not sudden, there were clear signs of Saudi planning something monstrous in scale, few thought that their ambition would be this vaulting or ruthless. Cristiano Ronaldo was thought to be a one-off instance. An isolated statement of intent. It was proved wrong. Not because the rest of the world underestimated the spending powers of Saudi, but their ruthlessness in pursuing the biggest players from Europe, those still in their prime, those that could still walk into any team in Europe. If Al Nassr coughing up 173 million pounds a year on Ronaldo was thought to be an untouchable ceiling, Al Hilal proved critics of the Saudi league wrong by acquiring Neymar’s signature for 240 million pounds per annum. That five of the ten highest-paid footballers are on the payroll of Saudi clubs boldly underlines the clout Saudi now wields in football. The investment sum could soar if Al-Ittihad manages to lure Mohammed Salah for a one-million-a-week salary.

Net spend matches Europe

None of these players are past their best years. Both Salah and Neymar are 31, N’golo Kante is a year older; Ruben Neves is 26, and Aymeric Laporte is 29. Already, the Saudi league, comprising 18 teams, ranks second in net player spend globally (700 million pounds), behind only the Premier League, says Deloitte’s Sports Business. The true figure will be far higher due to the bumper salaries.

Neymar New signing Al-Hilal’s Neymar is presented to the fans inside the stadium before the match. (Reuters)

If not for his different ambition, Kylian Mbappe too would have flown to the world of gold-dusted sands. So could have Lionel Messi, who refused the unfathomable riches of Arabia and descended on Miami, furnishing MLS a lifeline. There are both business and personal reasons behind the decision. He has apartments in Miami, he has stitched a revenue-sharing agreement with Adidas and Apple, major M.L.S. commercial partners.

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As if the glamour of the greatest footballer of this century playing the game in Miami is not enough, Inter Miami co-owner David Beckham has begun to bend in more glitz and glamour, giving MLS a sports-entertainment makeover. A-list Hollywood celebs, pop singers, rappers and NBA legends walk by brushing each other’s shoulders. From LeBron James to Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian to Serena Williams, Inter Miami’s games have become a rendezvous for the glam celebs. Miami is the new Paris and the old Milan. It would be the haunt of footballers with an eye for fashion and glamour, to unleash the flippant side that they had stifled for years in disciplined youth. It’s the ideal setting for an endless post-retirement party. With the fanfare Messi has brought to the eastern coast of America, the profile of the game is expected to skyrocket. Bringing Messi was akin to throwing the hat into the ring, announcing MLS’s heart to fight the football battle. In a sense, the Saudi league threatens the MLS more than the European league, because it was emerging as the most prosperous semi-retirement destination. Fewer players would be tempted to descend to the States unless there is something more than money. That is glamour, that Saudi Arabia, with its still-rigid laws, cannot offer in as massive a scale as the US.

That leaves us with Europe. The continent continues to be the gold standard for league competitions. It still is the most powerful footballing territory. The best talents of the world would blossom here, the best of them would be picked from here too. Europe is football’s magic canvas. There would be those like Mbappe who dream of turning up one day for Real Madrid and guzzling up Champions League medals and Ballon d’Or. The quality of the games would remain undiminished, fresh tactics and radical strategies would continue to be hatched in Spain and Italy, Germany and England. The Dutch and Portuguese leagues will keep spotting young talents; Latin America will continue importing their most gifted teenagers to Europe.

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But somewhere down the line, the talent drain would begin to rankle the European giants. The incredible Petro-Riyals would imbalance the European football bracket. For some clubs, it has become an easy route to offload overpriced players. For instance, no other club in the world could have afforded Neymar. Now, clubs could insert insane sums in the release clauses of big players. Invariably, though, it could result in a talent drain. There could come a generation that might not resist the lure of riches. How Europe tackles the Saudi-America challenge would be a fascinating sub-plot in the times to come and how this war minus shooting rolls on. No one is an ally of anyone in this battle. The enemy of the enemy is an enemy too in this game.

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