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S Arabia tempting host of world-famous footballers

2023-06-06 HKT 01:37
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  • Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr in January on a two-and-a-half-year deal said to be worth more than 400 million euros. Photo: AFP
    Ronaldo signed for Al Nassr in January on a two-and-a-half-year deal said to be worth more than 400 million euros. Photo: AFP
Saudi Arabia is hoping to lure a swathe of world-famous footballers including Luka Modric and Hugo Lloris, a source close to the negotiations has said, after snagging Cristiano Ronaldo and launching bids for Lionel Messi and Karim Benzema.

"More than 10" seasoned players including N'Golo Kante and Roberto Firmino have been approached, the source said, by the oil-rich kingdom which has ambitions of hosting the World Cup and is betting on sport to help revamp its austere image.

According to Saudi sources and state media this weekend, delegations flew to Paris and Madrid to secure the signatures of Messi and Benzema after their final games for Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid.

But the Saudis are also "in contact with more than 10 players, many of them won the World Cup or the Champions League, to join the Saudi league next season", said the source close to the talks, on condition of anonymity.

In addition to Messi, "the list includes Benzema, (Sergio) Ramos, (Angel) Di Maria, Modric, Hugo Lloris, Kante, Firmino, (Jordi) Alba and (Sergio) Busquets".

"Besides receiving quite lucrative offers they will play in a very competitive league," the source said, adding that the Saudis aimed to "seal most of the deals" before the new season starts on August 11.

Such a wishlist would have seemed unthinkable before the Saudis pulled off the signing of Ronaldo, 37, in January on a two-and-a-half-year deal said to be worth more than 400 million euros.

Last month, a source close to the Messi negotiations said that his signature was a "done deal", describing the terms of the agreement as "huge".

All the players listed are major stars at the tail-end of their careers, Firmino being the youngest at 31. Apart from French goalkeeper Lloris, who has a year left at Spurs, all are out of contract this month.

According to the sources, the contracts are being bankrolled by the Saudis' Public Investment Fund, one of the world's biggest sovereign wealth vehicles with more than US$620 billion in assets.

If the players sign, they will be divided between five Saudi clubs: Al Hilal, Al Nassr, Al Shabab, Al Ittihad and Al Ahly, the sources added.

Modric, Ramos, Kante, Alba and Busquets appear the closest to signing, they said.

Modric, Real Madrid's influential midfielder, and Ramos, who is leaving Paris Saint-Germain, would join Ronaldo at Al Nassr, while Kante would play at Saudi champions Al Ittihad, the sources added.

The Saudi Pro League, which next season is expanding to 18 teams allowed to field eight foreign players each, is also set for a structural revamp with plans to privatise the clubs from September.

The clubs, currently public property under the supervision of the sports ministry, will be sold to private companies or businesspeople as part of plans to more than double the league's value to eight billion riyals (US$2.13 billion) by 2030.

"The Saudi Pro League... will be supported in its ambition to be amongst the top 10 leagues in the world," the official Saudi Press Agency said on Monday.

A Saudi government official also confirmed that the authorities are holding negotiations with "world-class players".

"The objective is to establish a very strong and competitive league and elevate the Saudi clubs' levels," the official said.

The world's biggest oil exporter has already thrown hundreds of millions at sports deals including Ronaldo's signing, Formula One and the divisive LIV Golf tour, drawing frequent claims it is "sportswashing" its human rights record.

Saudi Arabia, whose neighbour Qatar hosted the World Cup last year, has explored bidding for the competition including a possible tri-continental hosting with Egypt and Greece.

Under the "Vision 2030" project of its 37-year-old de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is trying to diversify its oil-dependent economy by attracting tourists and investment.

While not well known internationally, the Saudi league enjoys a strong following in a country where more than half of the 32 million population is under 30. (AFP)