Aidan Smith: Who’s your favourite Saudi team? I’m sticking with the SPFL’s scuffers
Just about the only thing that can be said with near-as-dammit certainty is that Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez won’t be joining one of Saudi’s big four clubs seemingly intent on swallowing football whole. It’s like they’re giant Arabian sand boas or steroid-pumped Deathstalker scorpions or other lethal species I’ve learned about from Googling the country’s most-dangerous.
You’ll remember the bold Emiliano. How, having won the World Cup with Argentina last December, he accepted his vaguely phallic trophy for being top goalkeeper and promptly stuffed it between his legs. This was on a giant stage erected by Saudi’s neighbours Qatar to bring down the curtain on the tournament and demonstrate that, contrary to expectation, they hadn’t ruined the greatest show on earth.
If looks could kill. Stern men in gutras – the national headdress – stared in apoplexy. In Qatar, Martinez’s bawdy act is not actually one that’s punishable by death, but it will surely have been noted in Saudi as the black gold kingdom continues to chuck millions at the feet of just about everyone else in fooball.
Who have they got? Who have they not got? Okay, not Kylian Mbappe, at least not yet, with France’s contender, perhaps by the end of his career for GOAT, rebuffing Al-Hilal’s overtures, a £259 million transfer bid and, to be paid to the player, £1.64 million a day, which works out at £19 per second.
But here’s me, mentioning Al-Hilal without denoting them as one of the quartet of teams controlled by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund as if I’d even heard of them a matter of mere weeks ago, when of course I hadn’t and neither had you.
Are they, along with Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr, soon to become as familiar to we long-time inhabitants of Planet Football as Real Madrid, Manchester United and, er, Wrexham, recognised everywhere? Followed from afar, will Saudi’s Gang of Four become part of the chitchatterama? Did you see their game last night? Will they win the league? Who are they buying now?
Cristiano Ronaldo’s switch to Saudi Arabia at the end of last year looked to be the last hurrah for the game’s Greatest Showman. Saudi it seemed had become the new, fashionable place to see out those final seasons. But while the £173 million-a-year Ronaldo is not the sort to go gentle, even into a South Lanarkshire division of walking football, England’s Premier League probably did not think it had anything to worry about.
Then Karim Benzema signed. Bothered? The last Champions League final appeared to be a step too far for him, so not really. At that stage it looked like the Saudis were collecting what might be called grandpa-ticos. Then Roberto Firmino. Lovely footballer but of declining influence. N’Golo Kante? His switch was more intriguing and therefore more concerning. A footballer’s footballer like Firmino who could surely have walked into most other English top flight teams.
Scotland’s top flight has supplied Jota. The Celtic winger, who had been one of our Premiership’s most exciting talents, is 24, the same age as Mbappe, and so far the youngest to be lured to Saudi. He won’t spend his remaining days in the desert but maybe he thought scoring a fine goal in the Bernabeu was as good as it was going to get for now. He’ll be appearing for Al-Ittihad, by the way, should you wish to follow his progress, but given that the leaving of Glasgow’s East End can sometimes be viewed as an act of treachery, perhaps not many Celtic fans will.
Liverpool fans, meanwhile, are right now arguing over what is the true legacy of Jordan Henderson, another who’d been at risk of playing less at Anfield but nevertheless the club captain who’s hoisted all that recent silverware. And his case is more complicated than that for Henderson seemed like a principled footballer, a man of conscience who’d backed worthy causes and wore a rainbow armband in support of LGBTQ+. Now he’s the very latest to move to Saudi where same-sex relationships are illegal, with punishments including the death penalty.
Saudi Arabia’s takeover of football follows the upending of golf and serious inroads into motorsport and boxing with tennis expected to be next. It’s all about sportswashing, which isn’t to be confused with sportswatch-wearing, where the brand-conscious superstar elite are showered with outrageously expensive timepieces, the only condition being they quickly strap ’em on for the trophy-collecting photo-ops.
Just to be clear, guys, sportswashing is what dodgy nations do to distract from inconveniences such as shocking human rights records. A big, fanfared announcement about the latest stellar signing for the Saudi football revolution can be seen as perfect for diverting attention from the country’s 61 executions since the start of the year.
Footballers aren’t fond of tricky questions, similarly Saudi’s rulers, and I don’t imagine players, while they’re earning their millions, will be invited to reflect on what it feels like to be plying their trade in the country where a journalist was dismembered while still alive. Maybe, though, they could be asked when they leave.
That’s assuming this is a fad and will burn itself out. “Something new is obviously happening,” admitted Premier League chief executive Richard Masters the other day, presumably having checked his trousers to ensure they weren’t already half-down.
Either way, Emiliano Martinez is well out of it. So, too, all the honest scuffers we’ll be seeing again next weekend.
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