UEFA president Čeferin dismisses idea of threat to European soccer from big-spending Saudis


GENEVA (AP) — European soccer should not be afraid of a player exodus to Saudi Arabian clubs, UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin said Sunday, suggesting the country was making a mistake investing in stars at the end of their careers.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have taken hundreds of millions of dollars to join Saudi Arabian clubs this year and similar offers were made to Lionel Messi and Luka Modrić. They have combined to win every Ballon d’Or awarded since 2008 and all are aged at least 35.

More players are expected to follow after four top Saudi Arabian clubs were effectively nationalized this month when taken into majority ownership by the Public Investment Fund sovereign wealth operation chaired by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Čeferin was asked by Netherlands broadcaster NOS if he was scared of a player exodus, and answered emphatically: “No, no, no.”

“I think that it’s mainly a mistake for Saudi Arabian football,” the UEFA president said in an interview broadcast Sunday.

“Why is that a problem for them? Because they should invest in academies, they should bring coaches, and they should develop their own players.”

“The system of buying the players that almost ended their career is not the system that develops football,” he said. “It was a similar mistake in China when they all brought players who are at the end of their career.”

Didier Drogba was the star recruit to the Chinese league in 2012 as clubs there bought Europe-based forwards like Nicolas Anelka and Frédéric Kanouté. The Chinese league and men’s national team have made little progress internationally in the years since.

“Tell me one player who is top, top age and who starts his career and went to play in Saudi Arabia?” Čeferin asked during the interview on the sidelines of the Nations League Finals mini-tournament hosted in the Netherlands.

“But it’s not about money only. Players want to win top competitions. And top competition is in Europe,” the UEFA leader said.

The first wave of superstars targeted by Saudi Arabia all won multiple Champions League titles in Europe. Messi won his first World Cup title with Argentina last year and is joining Inter Miami in Major League Soccer while Modrić seems set to stay at Real Madrid for one more season.

“We didn’t lose them,” Čeferin said when asked if European soccer had lost top attractions. “They still play football. At the end of their career some players go somewhere to earn some money.”

Saudi Arabia already has a place in the Champions League with Newcastle qualifying through a fourth-place finish in the Premier League in the club’s first full season under 80% ownership by PIF.

Newcastle joins other big-spending, state-owned clubs in the 32-team lineup next season – Qatar’s Paris Saint-Germain and Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City, the new title holder. PSG chairman Nasser al-Khelaïfi is a close ally of Čeferin as a member of UEFA’s executive committee and also is chairman of Qatari broadcaster beIN Media Group, which is one of UEFA’s biggest customers for TV rights.

Čeferin reiterated Sunday that UEFA is looking at rules to impose an overall cap on the budget for salaries and transfers for clubs that qualify to play in European competitions.

“Because we don’t want that two or three clubs who have unlimited resources come to a budget of 5 billion or 10 billion,” he said. “Then our competition is not interesting any more.

“Practically every club, everyone who I spoke with, agrees with that,” Čeferin said, cautioning: “We are far from any decision, we are just thinking about it.”

It is unclear how UEFA can introduce such rules within European Union laws and different tax regimes across its 55 member federations. Salary caps have often been considered in the 15 years since European soccer officials shaped “Financial Fair Play” rules to monitor clubs’ income and spending.

UEFA under Čeferin’s leadership since 2016 also has aired ideas of taking the marquee game in club soccer, the Champions League final, to a host city outside Europe.

That seemed no closer Sunday, he told NOS, and the next two finals will be in London and Munich.

“We didn’t even discuss moving out of Europe let alone be concrete as in Saudi Arabia or somewhere else,” Čeferin said. “For the future I don’t give it a big chance that we go out.”


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