Sheffield United: An analysis of how a takeover bid at Bramall Lane could fit into a Kingdom's wider footballing plans
According to reports, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation is investigating the possibility of staging this year's Super Cup, the traditional curtain-raiser to every Pro League season, in Paris.
If they are correct, the decision to move the meeting between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad to France represents another phase in the Kingdom’s increasingly aggressive overseas strategy.
With HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud continuing his push for sole-control of Sheffield United, a process which began in January, it inevitably raises questions about whether the attempt to buy-out fellow co-owner Kevin McCabe could eventually form part of a wider plan designed to increase its influence in the game. Earlier this week it was announced a company with existing links to Saudi Arabia, where investors are backing proposals to overhaul the Club World Cup (CWC), had acquired the digital rights to the World Cup in Russia.
Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University, believes the support for CWC reform is significant and reveals Prince Abdullah’s home country is formulating plans to expand its global footballing interests.
“Saudi Arabia wants to exert more influence on world football and upon other countries through football,” Prof Chadwick told The Star. “In particular, it is a way for Saudi Arabia achieve some sort of parity with its near neighbours such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar, all of which have spent heavily on various aspects of football.”
Prince Abdullah was handed 50 per cent of United’s parent company Blades Leisure Limited five years ago in return for various financial guarantees. Midway through last season, the Championship club released a statement confirming discussions were taking place “regarding the transfer of ownership and control of Sheffield United Football Club to the Prince.” Although these remain on-going, two of his most trusted advisors are now an almost daily presence at Bramall Lane.
Asked if he envisages more Saudi interest in English or British clubs in the short to medium term, Prof Chadwick replied: “A few months ago I would have said yes. However, Saudi’s own domestic football privatisation programme has stalled. As has the privatisation of its largest organisation (the state-owned oil and gas company Saudi Aramco). Hence it is difficult to say with any certainty what will happen next. In theory, it will happen. In reality, the picture is increasingly unclear.”
If more domestic clubs do become targets for Saudi investors, Prof Chadwick detailed the political thought process behind these bids and explained how they could represent an attempt to wield ‘soft’ diplomatic power.
“Saudi is looking towards reforming its economy away from a dependence on oil and gas and by reducing state ownership of organisations,” he said. “Football and sport and two parts to the strategy: build revenues by investing in sport and promote private ownership of sports assets. That said, Saudi Arabia has largely failed to play the soft power game so, investing in football like Qatar and Abu Dhabi, is the country’s attempt to play catch-up.”
Saudi Arabia’s desire to diversify its economy was the catalyst for ‘Saudi Vision 2030’; a program which also encompasses the world of sport. Announced by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2016, it has major implications for Pro League clubs according to a report by Abu-Dhabi based publication The National. Jan Van Winckel, an associate of Prince Abdullah and now United director, was interviewed by the newspaper about the project 12 months ago in his capacity as the SFF’s technical director.
“Saudi Vision 2030 is a great and ambitious project but what I really like is the emphasis on the Saudi people,” he was quoted as saying. “Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that not oil or gold is the most important resource of Saudi but its people, the Saudi people. And I cannot agree more.
“You can only develop football in a country through the local people,” he continued. “That’s why we are focusing on developing the Saudi national coach.”
Responding to claims Saudi Vision 2030 could see government money made available to help those looking to invest in sports such as football overseas, Prof Chadwick said: “Six months ago I would have said yes. Now, I am not so sure. Behind the gloss of a young prince and his desire to radically reform Saudi Arabia, there is now some deep dissatisfaction with him and an increasing resistance to what he is trying to do. (Saudi Arabian) Football appeared to be on the cusp of major change. But now I am less convinced, in the short to medium term, we will necessarily see any major changes taking place.”
Despite the protracted nature of their negotiations, and continued uncertainty about who will eventually take control, Prince Abdullah and McCabe both agreed earlier this month to extend Chris Wilder’s contract as United manager. The day before it emerged he had launched his takeover bid, Belgian outfit Beerschot Wilrijk revealed Prince Abdullah had agreed to become one of their shareholders. In turn, this led to suggestions he could view the Proximus League side as a potential entry point into the European transfer market for United.
“Increasingly, global investors are looking to other countries (other than England),” Prof Chadwick said. “Clubs are cheaper to buy in places like France and Italy, while they are often less commercially developed and are therefore potentially more lucrative.”