Explainer: Why Saudi Arabia Wants To Pump $200 Million Into African Football

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African club football is on course to receiving a lorry-load of Arab money, as Saudi Arabia wishes to invest $200 million in the new African Super League. Regarding the new league, the Middle Eastern country has been in talks with the Confederation of African Football (CAF) for some time. CAF is the administrative body for association football, futsal and beach soccer in Africa.

Last week, CAF announced it had signed a 5-year cooperation and development agreement with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. According to CAF, the deal will “foster growth opportunities for African and Saudi Arabian football”. 

What is the African Super League?

The African Super League is meant to be a grander version of the current CAF Champions League, to be participated in by top African football clubs. Its equivalent is the much-beleaguered European Super League. 

The African Super League was first proposed in 2018 by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and it was announced that same year by CAF’s president, Patrice Motsepe. The league, which will comprise 24 teams, was due to launch this August. Its prize fund of $100m includes $11.6m for the winner—almost $8m more than the current prize for the winners of the African Champions League—and a solidarity fund that will bring each of the 54 CAF member associations $1m a year.

Postponement due to the Saudi deal

Since CAF is still having talks with Saudi Arabia, the start of the African Super League will be delayed until the 2024-25 season when the sponsorship deal with Saudi Arabia is expected to begin. In the meantime, a trimmed version featuring only 8 teams will run from 17 October to 30 November next season. 

Benefits for African football

Proponents of the African Super League have said it will generate massive revenue for African football and also raise the continent’s standing in global football. 

“There is a huge will to invest in a project like this, which will give a new visibility to African football,” Infantino said of the new African Super League last October.

The financial merits of the league cannot be overstated, especially because CAF has been struggling with money. In 2019, the association lost a $1bn television and marketing rights deal with the French company Lagardère Sports. 

Possible Benefits for Saudi Arabia

For years Saudi Arabia has tried to claim a front seat in global football. One of the ways it has tried to do this is by extending its reach to more popular football centres, such as its 2021 controversial albeit successful take-over bid of the English side Newcastle United.

But the country has also done this by flaunting a fat wad of cash, luring top players to its Saudi Pro League—especially those who play in Europe—with outsized contracts that are impossible in Europe due to the Financial Fair Play rule. Most notably the country would welcome football icon Cristiano Ronaldo to its league in January when he joined Al Nassr on a two-and-a-half year deal worth $220m a year. Multiple reports also say another football icon Lionel Messi might join the Saudi league when the Argentine’s two-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain expires this summer. Already Messi has been a willing face for Saudi culture: last May, he was unveiled as a tourism ambassador for the country. Top-crust players like Neymar Junior, Sergio Busquets and Karim Benzema have also been linked with a move to Saudi Arabia.

With its latest deal with CAF, Saudi might be continuing its reputation-propping campaign. And the country very likely is doing this because it wishes to host the FIFA World Cup, hoping to follow in the steps of its neighbour Qatar who hosted the last edition.

It’s been rumoured that Saudi Arabia considers an unprecedented three-continent project to host the 2030 World Cup despite FIFA’s rules preventing Asian Football Confederation nations from hosting a men’s World Cup until 2034. But a deal with CAF, with regards to the African Super League, could bring support from Africa for Saudi’s World Cup bid.