A publicity stunt from La Liga which sees Saudi Arabian players joining rosters has backfired with fans suspicious of the motives
It was the typical Sunday evening, with an enthralling Betis against Barça on TV and the usual Messi masterclass going on when, suddenly, Twitter feeds started pinging.
One signing. Then, a second one. Three, four… Up to nine players were made official in a matter of minutes by half a dozen of LaLiga teams. They all had two things in common: the social media strategy to announce them and the fact they were all coming from Saudi Arabia.
Fahad Al-Muwallad (Levante), Salem Al Dawsari and Jaber Issa (Villarreal and Villarreal B), Yahia Al-Shehri and Marwan Othmnan (Leganés and Leganés B), Nooh Al Mousa (Valladolid), Abdulmajeed Al Sulayhim (Rayo), Ali Al Namer (Numancia) and Abdullah Alhamdan (Sporting de Gijón U-19) are the names of the pack.
السعودي سالم الدوسري يصل إلى # فيلاريال. أهلا وسهلا! تحية قلبية للعالم العربي بأسره! pic.twitter.com/bxXcsZqkes
— Villarreal CF (@VillarrealCF) January 21, 2018
The collective WTF moment by fans soon turned into outrage as the curtain was opened on the event and the terms of the agreement were broken down: LaLiga, Saudi Arabia’s General Sports and its Football Federation signed a deal to spread Saudi football across Spanish teams with six-month loan deals which will mean a couple million euros for any sides that are included in the agreement. In short, paying teams for a spot in their rosters.
Clubs such as Levante or Villarreal won’t pay a single cent for the player’s salary or loan; in fact, they are bound to earn between 2 and 3 million euros for this publicity stunt.
Are the players any good? Obviously, they must be talented, but many question their real chance of making it into LaLiga teams if the agreement hadn’t been set. In fact, nobody believes that Spanish teams had scouted any single player of the pack that has landed in the league. To a certain extent, some of the stronger sides (again, Levante, Villarreal, Leganés…) had some level of power to hand-pick one or another. Levante went with Fahad, a star in his country and who scored a key goal against Japan in moving on to the World Cup. A national hero. Villarreal, meanwhile, picked winger Al Daswari to enhance its attacking front, and so on.
3 Saudi players have joined La Liga today on loan till the end of the season, in a part of the preparations of the Saudi NT for the World Cup 2018.
Salem Al Dawsari to Villarreal.
Yahya Al Shahri to Leganes
Fahed Al Mowaled to Levante pic.twitter.com/rlyyvaAgdF
— Mootaz Chehade (@MHChehade) January 21, 2018
Regardless of the impact these players might have in their teams (spoiler alert: it will be tiny or no impact at all), this deal has badly hurt the reputations of these sides, who have made a fuss over the following days of how big of a surge their social media channels have experienced due to thousands of Saudi fans flooding their Twitter feeds or Facebook pages.
Local fans, traditional supporters, feel cheated: you only have to take a quick glance at their tweets to see that they are not keen on the move made by their clubs. The hashtag #AgainstModernFootball trended quickly while the surprise and outrage has kept afloat throughout the week.
Possibly one of the facts that has irked them the most has been the insistent comments coming from LaLiga suits, reps, former players and spokespeople insisting on how “talented” all the players are, how “important” this agreement is and how much “growth” it’s going to mean for the competition. For example, Juan Manuel López Caro, former Real Madrid manager and Saudi Arabia national team manager, stated that these new players “are going to surprise everyone”.
All in all, a fancy coat of paint and sugar on top of the true reason behind this move: Saudi Arabia has a population of over 34 million and Arab-speaking countries amass more than 220 million citizens. And the stunt has worked wonders, especially in the first few days: the Arab-written Twitter handle of LaLiga increased almost a 700% in the days following the announcement.
Nobody would scoff at this interaction and growth, but can it be regarded positively when it hasn’t happened organically? When it’s the result of an economic and financial publicity stunt to gain visibility and penetration in the Arab fan market? Too many questions to answer at this point, but the fact is that our beautiful game keeps losing its soul day by day. Or, better said, selling it to the highest bidder.