Football, the most popular sport in the world,continues to grow year on year at an astounding pace.
Nobody disputes the fact that the appeal and popularity of football is unprecedented,overwhelming,mind boggling and unrivaled. The interest in football around the world has never been greater.No wonder,it's fandom which is around 4 billion makes it the biggest sport in the world.
The love,passion, emotion,enthusiasm and craze for football in fans run deep, and it is ingrained in their everyday life and culture. For many, football is more than just a sport and pastime.They see it as a kind of universal religion,binding people of different races, cultures, faiths and backgrounds.
Furthermore, football has become a global phenomenon and transformed into a multi-billion dollar industry.The socio-economic impact of football is humongous. The recently concluded Women’s World Cup football tournament held in Australia and New Zealand raked in an impressive over $570 million(the biggest ever) in revenue for the World Football body.
Leading up to the 2022 Men’s World Cup in Qatar, FIFA generated a staggering record breaking $7.5 billion, $1billion more than the 2018 World Cup in Russia through commercial deals. Besides, prestigious tournaments held in different continents like Copa Del Rey( Spain),Football Association Cup(England), Africa Cup of nations (Africa),UEFA Europa League(Europe), Copa Libertadores (South American club tournament),Copa America( South America),UEFA Champions League( Europe) and AFC(Asia) is a testament to the global reach of football. Further, elite European leagues like the English Premier League,Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga,French Ligue, Portuguese Primeira Liga and many more where the world’s best talents play are watched around the world and generate revenues in astronomical figures every year.
More importantly, the leagues have significantly contributed to the rapid growth and popularity of professional football. Today every football playing nation has its own semi-professional league or professional league studded with foreign recruits. Also a large chunk of money has been invested into the development of infrastructures and facilities,the backbone of football development in the long run. Come weekends, fans are in front of their television screens to watch and root for their favorite teams playing in different leagues in the world. Apart from television viewers,football goers who watch matches in person pack stadiums, week in,week out. The planet’s biggest sporting spectacle, the men’s World Cup transcends sports bringing people across the world under one roof.Fans wherever they are create a frenzy carnival and festival-like atmosphere in their own ways.
Every major international tournament, be it the Women’s World Cup or the European Cup or the UEFA League draws huge television viewership. The 2022 World Cup final between Argentina and France drew a record breaking 16,783,000 TV viewers. Given the unprecedented popularity of football in the world, it is no surprise that people of all ages are emotionally attached to the sport. Chasing fame and fortune, young boys and girls everywhere dream of becoming successful professional footballers. It is one sport that is played in every nook and corner of the world by both sexes. Football legend Pele who came out of retirement to play for New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League in 1975 put American soccer on the international map. Pele’s move to the United States prompted other legends Franz Beckenbauer,Johan Cruff and Carlos Alberto to follow him. It paved the way for the US to get the hosting rights for the 1994 World Cup and laid down groundwork for the Major League Soccer(MLS).
Superstar Lionel Messi’s move to Inter Miami in Florida co-owned by former English international footballer David Bekcham is bound to boost the profile of MLS and raise the popularity of football in the US further. Unquestionably, the rest of the world has a long way to go to catch up European leagues in terms of standards,popularity and financial success. Everyone agrees that the grand success of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar established football’s status as the number one sport in the world. Since then we have witnessed a significant development in the football landscape of the gulf states with Saudi Arabian football clubs leading the charge and making their global ambitions very clear. The football world was taken by complete surprise following Saudi Professional League(SPL) club Al Nassr signing Cristiano Ronaldo,one of the most decorated names in modern football on a 2 and half-year contract worth more than $ 200 million a year,making him the most expensive player on the planet. Already Ronaldo’s signing has triggered ripple effects.Prior to this, the sporting world knew very little about SPL.
In fact, it was like an uncharted territory. As things stand now,SPL has undergone a dramatic transformation capturing the attention of sports enthusiasts across the world. Al-Nassr has been the biggest beneficiary. Its name,recognition and value have gone through the roof. What a world of difference a player of Ronaldo stature does,the most followed person on Instagram,with 600 million followers. Since the Portuguese superstar joined the club,its Instagram followers count has jumped to 15 million from an estimated 860,000 and merchandise has gone global. SPL popularity has skyrocketed and is being broadcasted worldwide in 140 countries including the USA.
Additionally, the league revenue has increased by an insane 650 percent. Ronaldo’s move to the oil rich country has opened the floodgates. In no time other big names like Neymar Jr,Otavio,Aymeric, Laporte,Karim Benzema, Sadio Mane,N’Golo Kante,Riyad Mahrez,Roberto Firmino, Fabhino, Jordan Henderson and many more have followed suit. We are bound to see more players make a move from European and other leagues to SPL in the future. With the sole intent to boost and transform the league into one of the elite leagues in the world and take domestic football standards to new heights,the Public Investment Fund,a government (Saudi Arabia) entity that owns all four clubs-Al- Nassr, Al- Ittihad, Al-Hilal and Al-Ahli entered the highly lucrative European transfer market. In the process they have been heavily investing in top notch players of the world . Obviously, if things go as planned Saudi Arabia’s domestic football will immensely benefit from SPL.
It is hoped that Saudi’s revolutionary foray into the highly lucrative international football transfer market prompts other leagues across Asia to do the same.. The presence of internationally renowned players in SPL is an important breakthrough and a big gain for Asian club competitions. The acquisition of Manchester City(UAE) and Paris Saint-Germain(Qatar)) and New Castle United(Saudi Arabia) by the Gulf states speaks volumes of their intentions to influence global football. Also they may have the ownership of Manchester United and Liverpool in the not too distant future. Prior to SPL, in 2016 a similar scenario unfolded in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
Encouraged by the Chinese government’s vision of becoming a global power in football by 2050 CSL teams stormed the international football transfer market much to everyone’s surprise. The move made CSL the biggest and hottest destination for footballers outside the European leagues. The majority of clubs owned by property developers went on a head spinning spending spree amounting to around $ 1 billion on foreign stars in the likes of Oscar,Ramires,Hulk, Paulinho,Didier Drogba, Jackson Martinez,Carlos Tevez,Nicolas Anelja and many more.
Some of the sharpest minds in coaching like Luize Felipe Scolari, Marcello Lippi and Fabio Capello were roped in as well. However, hit by government regulatory measures, economic slowdown triggered by COVID pandemic and corruption within the Chinese Football Association,CSL failed to serve the purpose and ultimately fell flat. The Saudis must not let that happen to SPL. They can learn from CSL bust and avoid similar mistakes for SPL’s sustainability and success.
By Sushil Thapa, Fairfax,VA, USA
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