This is going to require some explanation. La Liga has purchased nine players from the Saudi Professional League. There are actual clubs involved—players like Salmam Al Dawsari moving on loan from Al Hilal to Villarreal and Fahad Al Muwallad joining Levante from Al Ittihad for the next few months—but the broader deal that’s been struck is between the LFP, the organization in charge of La Liga and its lower leagues, and the General Sports Authority of Saudi Arabia, the governmental apparatus that runs the country’s various professional sports leagues, and, like similar institutions in China and Qatar, seeks to develop and promote Saudi athletes as a way of building national prestige. The basic quid pro quo here is that Saudi Arabia gets to put some of its best soccer talent in front of La Liga’s sizable audience ahead of a World Cup for which they qualified this past fall and the clubs that are taking on the Saudi players get to sell a few extra shirts and maybe pick up some new fans. It’s also entirely possible there’s some money being passed under the table in one direction or another, but we’ll never find out if that’s the case.
Three Saudi players have landed at La Liga sides and the other six are going to play in Spain’s second division. We’ll see how many of them get significant playing time. Villarreal, in particular, already have a tough-to-crack lineup. I won’t pretend to know who any of these Saudis are. The soccer world is just too vast to chart all of it and I think I could run my cable bill up to three hundred bucks per month and not be able to watch any of the Saudi Professional League. Perhaps a couple of these guys will be quite good and make an impact, though the odds are slim considering the daunting step up in terms of quality of competition and the fact that they’re joining their teams in late January and will be gone by May. Do any of them speak Spanish? There’s not much of a reason for managers to go out of their way to integrate these players—beyond, of course, some serious cajoling from their bosses. The whole gambit seems pointless, counterproductive, and more than a little comic.
So why bother? Because La Liga is a poorly run league that’s always looking for quick fixes and cash it doesn’t have to work too hard for. Like every other league on the continent, they’re chasing the English Premier League in terms of television and sponsorship revenue—the income gap between the two leagues is projected to be around $2.5 billion this season—but they’re doing so half-heartedly, in ways that betray how little they’re invested in substantially improving their product.
For instance, the standard of refereeing in Spain is atrocious, but there’s been no recent talk of putting any additional cash or resources into training for officials. La Liga makes small teams play matches on Fridays and Mondays at kickoff times as late as 10:30 at night—nobody shows up to the stadium, nobody watches on TV, and yet the league won’t move those games to the weekend or a godly hour. The EPL distributes its television revenue pretty evenly, which gives clubs like Swansea and Stoke City, if nothing close to Chelsea-like buying power, at least a decent chunk of cash with which to acquire talent each summer. La Liga’s revenue sharing scheme is more equitable than it used to be, but it still skews heavily toward the bigger clubs, which further entrenches the hegemony of Barcelona and Madrid, and to a lesser extent, the upper-middle class of Atlético, Valencia, and Sevilla. If you look through the offseason transfers of the bottom and even some mid-table clubs in La Liga, you see that they’ve grabbed three out of contract players, three on loan, and their biggest signing is some bargain basement deal for $2 or $3 million. Eibar are better than Swansea and Stoke, but that’s all youth development and scouting and coaching. Financially, they’re not in the same universe, and their league barely helps them out.
In 2016, La Liga decided they had an attendance problem and sought to address it. Sort of. They instituted a rule that fines clubs for failing to fill seventy-five percent of the parts of their stadium that were captured by television cameras. In other words, they don’t care about clubs not selling tickets so much as… it kind of looking on TV like they aren’t selling tickets. The league, of course, hasn’t subsidized ticket prices for fans or given clubs money to, say, provide shuttle service to the stadium. Instead they’ve given the clubs tarps and told them if attendance is low, crowd your supporters into a couple of sections and cover the vacant ones with these. It’s a very La Liga solution.
This agreement with the Saudi Arabian government is a similar sort of quarter-measure. Sure, it would be great for La Liga if they could add a new soccer-loving market to their global fanbase. But that’s not going to happen—not like this. It’s a deal that’s emblematic of a larger issue, which is that LFP suits are simply too lazy and unimaginative to effectively market and improve a league that’s often fantastic to watch but frustrating to consume. As the EPL only grows in stature and quality, La Liga continues to fail Spanish soccer. So much needs to change and so much could, if anybody could be bothered to do their job. But that is, deeply unfortunately, just not the way things are currently going. La Liga is getting left behind, season over season. One of these days, the folks in charge are going to look up and discover the totality of their error. You wonder if, even then, they will care.