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Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Saudi Arabia is Disrupting MLS’ Aging Superstar Pipeline

  • Since David Beckham made the jump to MLS in 2007, the league has built up a reputation as the premier destination for aging superstars.
  • Saudis attracting greats such as Ronaldo and Messi with significant financial packages.
Aging soccer stars are no longer ending careers in MLS.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
A few months ago, the prospect of Lionel Messi coming to Major League Soccer via Inter Miami seemed like a distinct possibility.

It made all the sense in the world: Messi already owns property in Miami, had previously said he wanted to play in the United States before retiring, and even sparked rumors he would join an Inter ownership group that includes David Beckham — who himself shocked the world by playing in MLS near the end of his legendary career. 

Messi — who has a legitimate argument as the greatest soccer player of all time following his World Cup victory with Argentina last year — was to be the crown jewel for a league with a reputation as a retirement home for former superstars.

Then Saudi Arabia swooped in.

This month, several reports have linked Messi to Saudi side Al-Hilal, which has reportedly offered him a staggering $386.5 million per season — a sum that would easily make him the highest-paid athlete in the world and would surpass the reported $220 million given to rival Cristiano Ronaldo from Al-Nassr.

Ronaldo’s departure for Saudi Arabia was a saga in itself. After seeing little playing time for Portugal during the World Cup — and more notably, for Manchester United during the Premier League season — Ronaldo forced his way out of Manchester via an explosive interview with Piers Morgan in which he aired his many grievances with the club.

The 38-year-old is clearly past his prime, but that matters less in the Saudi Pro League, where the competition level is nowhere near world-class. As a result, Ronaldo has 12 goals in his first 13 matches with Al-Nassr.

In a previous era, before the Saudis began using their seemingly unlimited silos of cash on sports, Messi and Ronaldo could have ended up dueling in MLS in their twilight years. Now, it’s possible that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has usurped the U.S. as soccer’s premier setting for a victory lap.

Glory Days

Beckham’s arrival at LA Galaxy in 2007 was a landmark moment for the then-20-year-old MLS. 

The English superstar had become a global icon through success at Manchester United and Real Madrid, his fashion and modeling pursuits, and his marriage to former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham.

His arrival in Los Angeles showed that MLS could be a destination for big-name players — even if they were past their primes.

It also began a trend: Many of the last two decades superstars have played the final few years of their careers for MLS clubs — usually, but not always, in big markets.

  • LA Galaxy: Steven Gerrard, Zlatan Ibrahimović
  • New York City FC: Frank Lampard, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa
  • Others include: Didier Drogba (Montreal Impact), Thierry Henry (NY Red Bulls), Gonzalo Higuaín (Inter Miami), Kaká (Orlando City), Wayne Rooney (DC United), and Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire)

Aside from Ibrahimović, still somehow playing for AC Milan at 41 years old, all of those players retired shortly after their stints in MLS — including the most recent addition to the cohort, Gareth Bale, who rode off into the sunset after helping LAFC win its first MLS Cup.

Though MLS teams can’t match what Saudi Arabia or any other country can dole out for talent — especially given the league’s salary-cap format — there’s still a lot of upside for players past their primes: MLS’ four highest-paid players per year fit the bill for the twilight trend. 

  • Lorenzo Insigne (Toronto FC, $14M)
  • Xherdan Shaqiri (Chicago Fire, $8.2M)
  • Javier “Chicharito” Hernández (LA Galaxy, $7.4M)
  • Frederico Bernardeschi (Toronto FC, $6.3M)

There’s also something to be said for living the American lifestyle, playing against increasingly improving talent, and the opportunity to help grow the game in the U.S.

A New Challenger

MLS’ status as the premier landing spot for aging superstars is being challenged by a league that resides in a country obsessed with asserting itself in the Western sports world.

In the last few years, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has made several investments to boost its status in sports.

Its most high-profile case study is with LIV Golf, but it’s also making strides in the esports and gaming world, where it has reportedly invested $38 billion. The PIF even explored purchasing Formula 1 for $20 billion, a prospect on the backburner for now.

One of the fund’s more successful purchases thus far has been Newcastle United FC, which it bought for $409 million in 2021. Since then, the PIF has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the club, which currently sits third in the Premier League table.

Which brings us back to Messi and Ronaldo: Attracting the two all-time greats to play in Saudi Arabia is perhaps giving the Kingdom more of a foothold in the world’s game than ever before.

Assuming Messi does end up signing, he would continue in the role he has had as an ambassador for the country. Last week, he was forced to apologize to his Paris Saint-Germain teammates after taking an unapproved trip to KSA as part of his side hustle. 

As it did in that case, it always seems to come back to the state: The specific ownerships of Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr are murky, but they are seemingly owned or at least heavily supported by members of the Saudi royal family.

Thus, if Saudi Arabia is truly committed to its mission of influencing the sports world, it seems likely it will continue to go after aging legends — maybe Messi’s PSG teammate Neymar — and continue depriving MLS of international starpower.

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