Saudi Arabia predicted to buy the Champions League franchise rights from Uefa



By Tony Attwood

It has not had much publicity because of all the raging about Super League and Saudi Arabia’s apparent expansion plans, but in a recent case Royal Antwerp FC challenged Uefa’s rules and those of the Belgian football association that require a set number of “home-grown players” to be included in the teams.

That is relevant to Arsenal since the rules in the Premier League say that each team needs a squad list of no more than 25 players, with 17 being the maximum permissible number of non-homegrown players.  The rules add that irrespective of nationality, a player can qualify as homegrown if they’ve featured for a club affiliated to the FA for at least three years before their 21st birthday.

The idea is that the scheme will boost the number of players who could qualify to play for England, and perhaps aided by the rule England won the Uefa under 21 championship in 2023 and the under 19 championship in 2022.

Royal Antwerp FC however argued that the rules break both EU competition and free movement of workers rules and the court agreed that as a result of the rule, there could be “indirect discrimination”, based on nationality against players coming from other EU member states.   But it also said that Uefa could have a chance to show that “those rules nevertheless encourage recruitment and training, and that they are proportionate to that objective.”

Such rulings are where changes begin, and they run alongside the story that for the next move in its sportswashing programme Saudi Arabia is going to buy the rights to the Champions League.  That turned up on one website and could well be just a bit of fun, but the story itself does raise some interesting questions.

Certainly, Saudi Arabia has the money and they want to change the perception of the country – there is no doubt about that.  But it has another aim as well, which is to move from being a country where everything is dependent on oil, to a tourist destination, and a place synonymous with leisure and entertainment.  And they want to do that without getting involved in all the pesky notions of religious freedom and democracy.

Now we know that Saudi Arabia has spent almost £5bn on sports since the start of 2021, (The Guardian), and as the saying goes, there is plenty more where that came from.   They also own Newcastle United – a fact that the English authorities seem not to be bothered about – and so having got away with that are quite likely to be looking for other clubs to buy up.

After all, they only need four clubs to be able to hold an annual pre-season tournament between their own teams before the start of each season – enough to give a six-match pre-season tournament that could be shown on TV around the world.  The heat might be a bit of a problem but that would only affect the players, and in this sort of event, they matter only a little bit more than the poor sods who are imported specifically to build the stadium and then kicked out again.

To achieve these ends the Saudis would either need the backing of Uefa or Fifa, and since each have taken a bit of a battering in the courts of late, each would be quite willing to outbid the other to get its name at the head of the tournament.

The attraction of bringing in Fifa rather than Uefa would be that they could then include clubs from outside Europe, and so rival the tours of North America that European clubs have become more and more interested in of late.

That would lead on to a world tournament run by Fifa bringing in more and more clubs each year until ultimately the Champions League as it exists now would be little more than a second-order tournament.   Club owners would like it because this would increase the value of their clubs, and there would be little that the existing leagues could do about it.

This would also have an impact on refereeing for given the sort of concerns we express sometimes about the way refereeing is handled in England, with its fanatical devotion to secrecy, that could be seen as a basis from which to build the refereeing infrastructure for Saudi-based tournaments.  For as we know PGMO men are regularly nipping back and forth between Saudi and England to do refereeing activities.

However some club owners really don’t want anyone to control their clubs except them, and this move might push them closer together to form their own controlling body, which is set apart from Uefa and Fifa.   Uefa and Fifa would then probably order countries not to pick players from such breakaway clubs, which would lead the clubs to create their own international competitions.

Certainly having more and more football on TV would be attractive to clubs like Arsenal which have a long waiting list for season tickets – indeed I understand the waiting list at Arsenal is now so long that the club is no longer selling Silver Memberships since some silver members are disquieted about the paucity of the supply of tickets they get in return for their investment.

Instead the Red Membership will probably more and more become not a route to tickets, but a statement of joining of a club – of being part of Arsenal – and watching the matches on TV while wearing the shirt etc.

As that happens, then if Arsenal are playing more and more games outside of England as part of Super League which is fully televised, that could change the game still further.  Membership could give access to Arsenal’s own TV channel which shows all their games.   

Certainly the fundamental argument by Fifa and Uefa that sports are a special case and so not subject to normal EU law is now gone.  What we are not quite clear about yet, is what comes next.

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