Europe 1 with AFP / Photo credit: FRANCK FIFE / AFP 19:21 pm, June 05, 2023

After Karim Benzema, Saudi Arabia would try to attract several other French players in its league. Several big names who have played, or are still playing, in the France team would be targeted. Among them, Ngolo Kanté or Hugo Lloris would be in the sights of Saudi clubs.

Harpooning Cristiano Ronaldo is not enough for the extremely rich Saudi Arabia, in full maneuver to attract in its nets Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema and other high-sounding names, a sporting offensive with strong geopolitical coloration. The kingdom of the Arabian Peninsula, criticized for human rights abuses, is determined to use football to improve its international image, and it has petrodollars galore to satisfy its ambitions.

A list of "more than ten" football stars has been drawn up for recruitment by Saudi clubs with Messi, Benzema and Luka Modric headlining, a source close to the negotiations told AFP on Monday. The Saudi Pro League dreams of adding the Argentine, the Frenchman and the Croatian to its chase, a victory that would allow it, including Ronaldo, to possess the four players who have won the prestigious Ballon d'Or over the past two decades.

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36 years on average

This quartet is 36 years old on average, but its cumulative notoriety is well worth the crazy sums needed to attract them to the eyes of Arabia, a likely candidate to co-organize the football World Cup in 2030 or 2034, perhaps with Egypt and Greece. "The goal is to set up a very strong and competitive league and raise the level of Saudi clubs," a Saudi government official said.

In total, local authorities are "in contact with more than ten players, many of whom have won the World Cup or the Champions League, to join the Saudi league next season," a source close to the negotiations told AFP.

In addition to Modric, Ballon d'Or and vice-world champion 2018, the kingdom has targeted the French Hugo Lloris and N'Golo Kanté, the Spaniards Sergio Ramos, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets, the Argentine Angel Di Maria or the Brazilian Roberto Firmino, the youngest of the courted at the top of his 31 years.

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Improve your image

Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, is trying to improve its image linked to a rigorous Islam and attract tourists and investment, thanks in part to sport. The world's largest oil exporter has spent hundreds of millions on sports contracts, signing Ronaldo but also organizing a Formula 1 Grand Prix and launching the dissident LIV golf circuit.

All these initiatives have earned him accusations of wanting to "whitewash through sport" his human rights record. The Saudi sovereign wealth fund (PIF), one of the richest in the world, is maneuvering to attract football stars, not the clubs themselves, according to sources close to the negotiations. It is expected that the players will be divided between five formations: Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Shabab, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahly. Saudi clubs are currently publicly owned, under the supervision of the Ministry of Sports. But a football development plan provides for their privatization by 2030.

The league will also change its format, going from next season from 16 to 18 clubs, which will be allowed to field eight foreign players each. The Saudi League's goal is to double the revenue it generates to reach 8 billion riyals (about two billion euros) by 2030. "The Saudi Pro League will be supported in its ambition to become one of the ten biggest championships in the world," the official Saudi news agency SPA reported on Monday.

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Golden end of career

Saudi officials are in Paris and Madrid trying to strike deals with Messi and Benzema, according to multiple sources and press reports. To date, the biggest coup achieved is the recruitment of Ronaldo by Al-Nassr at the end of December. The Portuguese would receive the highest salary in the history of the sport, around 200 million euros per season, according to unconfirmed reports.

A huge contract is also offered to Benzema, in negotiations with Al-Ittihad. In the case of Messi, seven-time Ballon d'Or winner approached by Al-Hilal, even higher sums are mentioned. All the players targeted are big stars at the end of their careers. With the exception of Lloris, who has one year left on his contract with Tottenham, their contracts are all expiring.

According to the sources interviewed by AFP, the most advanced negotiations concern in particular Modric (ex-Real Madrid) and Ramos (ex-Paris Saint-Germain), announced close to Al-Nassr, as well as Kanté, 2018 world champion at the end of his contract at Chelsea, tracked by the reigning champions of Al-Ittihad.