Celtic, Saudi, and an offer we couldn’t refuse

I write this latest blog having just woken up to the news that Jota has completed his move to Saudi Arabian side Al-Ittihad. Before I say anything else, I think it only fair that I wish Jota all the best, and thank him for the magnificent contribution he made in the two seasons he was with us. Footballing and ethical considerations aside, this is a move that will set him up for the rest of his life, and it’s an incredible coup for Celtic too. As much as we all love Jota, getting £25 million for a player still largely unproven at the highest level is a spectacular piece of business.

Unfortunately, however, this may not be the last time we see our club being raided by the cash-rich kingdom.  The emergence of Saudi Arabia as a sporting powerhouse, at least in the financial sense, has been on the cards for a while. After looking on enviously at their regional rivals Qatar last year, Saudi leaders made their ambitions clear: They want to host the World Cup in the near future.

Recent developments in the golfing world, with the controversial merger between the PGA and the Saudi-backed LIV group also reflect a wider movement by Saudi to channel its vast wealth into the sporting arena. Again, this is hardly anything new. After all, why did the Romans build the Colosseum?

I believe the correct parlance is “the bread and circuses” of it all would keep the masses distracted and malleable for those in power.

Saudi, following the EPL’s example

Not since the emergence of the English Premiership in 1993 has so much football money been spent by so few, in such a short space of time.  This makes it quite ironic that there is so much uproar in England at the moment from clubs and fans angry that these “Arab upstarts” to quote one commenter, dare to challenge the English stranglehold on world football finances. They didn’t seem to have as much of an issue when the likes of Chelsea financially doped their way to domestic and European success in the 2000s with a Russian gangster’s blood money, yet suddenly when it’s a Muslim-majority nation doing it, it becomes unpalatable.

Then again, the English right-wing media never were very good at hiding their innate bigotry. One need only look at all the jingoism they spew forth every time England habitually fails at an international tournament.

Anyway, I digress.

No matter how much the Daily Mail readers of this world grumble about it, and no matter how often campaigners, rightly, point to blatant and consistent human rights violations, Saudi money in sports is here for the foreseeable future.

But wait a minute, what does any of this have to do with Celtic?  Well, bear with me, we’ll come to that in due course.

Lessons to learn from Japan, China, and Qatar

Despite all the recent happenings, I believe this current situation will not last forever. I need not look far outside my own immediate surroundings for past precedent.  This year the J-League celebrates its 30th anniversary. It is a very different league, with a highly evolved system of governance compared to what initially emerged in 1993.

Back then, Japan didn’t even have a professional league, the national side had never qualified for a World Cup, and football was far behind both baseball and traditional sports like Sumo in public popularity.

Back then the JFA decided to take a Saudi-like approach. Big money was paid out to bring the likes of Gary Lineker, Pierre Litbarski, and Brazilian legend Zico over to Japan. There was a similar push for foreign managers too. Indeed, the late, great Wim Jansen managed in the J-League prior to joining Celtic in 1997.

However, within a few years, it became clear that, much like real-world economics, the trickle-down effect of having expensive international names on bumper salaries at each club simply didn’t work. Japan’s national team didn’t show much improvement in those first few years. They missed out on the 1994 World Cup, whilst their regional rival South Korea attended for the 3rd time in a row.

Quickly, the JFA pivoted to a system focused on developing Japanese talent, and limiting foreign players to 5 per squad. They also loosened restrictions on acquiring Japanese nationality for sports stars. As a result, Japan made it to France ’98, and has been to every World Cup since, reaching the last 16 on three occasions.

More recently, the Chinese Super League tried something similar. Again, the emphasis was on importing over-the-hill foreign players with big reputations to make up for the paucity of local talent.  Unfortunately for China, this formula failed once again. They have still yet to add to their solitary appearance at a World Cup. In all honesty, even if they undertook all the necessary reforms immediately, they are still about 10-15 years behind Japan and Korea.

So in short, the Saudi approach of “throwing money at it until we suddenly have a competitive national team” does not work. Japan until the mid-’90s, China, and most recently Qatar are prime examples of this. I give it 3-5 years tops before either the penny drops that they are throwing good money after bad, or these billionaires get bored and find another plaything.




What should Celtic do in the meantime?

Well, hopefully, we take the same assertive approach with Saudi teams as we have started to take with the EPL in the last couple of years.

Whilst UEFA sits back and continues to do nothing to bridge the massive financial gap between the 5 big leagues and the rest of Europe, Celtic will remain a selling club. Saudi is simply a new buyer in the market and one that, as the Jota deal clearly shows, can and will pay top dollar for players they deem worthy.

It is also interesting to note that, throughout the rapid evolution of the Jota deal, from internet rumour to signed and sealed package in just a few days, at no point did anyone on the Saudi side of things say anything disparaging about Celtic or about Scottish football in general. They simply saw a good player, they wanted him, and so they bought him. It’s the polar opposite of the arrogance, outrage and delusions of adequacy we saw from some Tottenham Hotspur fans a while back at the mere suggestion that Celtic’s manager might be good enough to manage their fundamentally broken, basket-case of a football club.

Football’s double standards

Now, as someone unashamedly left-leaning and progressive in my personal politics, I would much rather live in a world where Celtic didn’t have to do business with brutal, oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia.

But let’s get real for a minute here. Our squad currently contains an American, an Israeli, and a number of players from the UK. All three of these nations’ governments have a recent history of widespread, and in some cases ongoing, human rights abuses.

Football is a business, and as my father used to tell me: “a pound note doesn’t have a conscience.”

I don’t like Saudi Arabia’s government, but then I don’t care much for Israel’s, England’s or America’s either. Celtic has to make the best of what we can, within the constraints we currently face. Unfortunately, that means that we have and will continue to do business with clubs from countries with dubious human rights records. Football clubs, supporters, and indeed citizens do not always identify with the governments that lead them.

Who knows, if we bothered to ask, the average Al-Ittihad fan may have about as much time for the King of Saudi as most Celtic fans have for Boris Johnson!

In the meantime, the Saudi football gravy train will plough on, with money being thrown around like confetti. Celtic may as well get in on some of that, because we know our rivals in Europe won’t hesitate to do so either.

Liam Carrigan

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