The news came completely out of the blue, almost as though it had pushed through secretly – on Sunday, LaLiga announced an agreement with Saudi Arabia which will see nine international players from the Middle East country, who have qualified for this summer’s World Cup finals, spend the remainder of the season playing in the top three divisions in Spain: LaLiga Santander, LaLiga 1|2|3 and the Second Division B – in the case of the latter, in the reserves. The announcement has generated enthusiasm in Saudi Arabia and curiosity throughout the Arab states, where they look at our football league how our basketball clubs used to view the NBA (although that’s no longer the case): as a special world, one of the first-rate leagues and a paradise in which every footballer aspires to play. However, fans here and some coaches see the arrangement very differently.
Benefits for both sides
It’s an deal with a simple, two-way ‘tit-for-tat’ understanding. Saudi Arabia are looking to gain sporting benefits – in the same way as Qatar when they bought Cultural Leonesa – it is way for their international players to boost their level in a more competitive, superior league. For the Spanish clubs who take in these players, the sporting benefits may be less noticeable but the economic perks quite clear: Saudi Arabia is committed to find them new sponsors. And of course, the clubs will market their brands in the Arab world. It’s something similar to what we have seen in recent years with clubs looking to sign a Japanese player to break into that country’s market, like we have seen with Inui at Eibar, for example.
Not straightforward for the coaches
For the coaches who now need to find places in their sides for the new arrivals, it’s a bit of a pain in the neck. They’ll feel under pressure to field the players, and that’s another complication for them in the ongoing, weekly conundrum to put together the strongest team possible. In their defence, LaLiga say that the initiative opens up new markets to the clubs, that it will put their name on the map and allow them to be appreciated and followed in a region where fans only talk about Real Madrid and Barça. But at the end of the day, not all of the new signings who arrive at clubs in the conventional way can be justified more than these nine Saudi internationals. There is a reason behind the agreement – it forms part of LaLiga’s plans to expand globally. And let’s not forget that the operation which inspired this one saw Cultural gain promotion to the Second Division - with a helping hand from Qatar.