On 17 May 2018, as the rest of the football world readied itself for the upcoming World Cup, the Brazilian rumour mill ran wild with news that Corinthians manager Fábio Carille had been the subject of a substantial offer from Saudi Arabian outfit Al-Hilal.
Since taking over at Corinthians 18 months prior – having previously spent seven years as the club’s assistant manager – he had won two consecutive state championships and the 2017 Campeonato Brasileiro, making himself a hero in the eastern suburbs of São Paulo.
The next day, his team thumped Deportivo Lara of Venezuela 7-2 in the Copa Libertadores. But in the post-match press conference, the performance was barely mentioned.
After denying that a formal proposal had arrived, Carille was reminded of comments he had made last year, when he stated that he would not leave Corinthians until the day that they sent him packing. “Not even for a lorryful of money”, as he put it at the time.
“For one, no”, he replied, “But two lorryfuls might come, then the conversation is different. For two, I can think [about it].” Nervous laughter accompanied the response, which did nothing to abate fans’ fears.
The stories continued to circulate for a few days before the inevitable was announced. Carille would be leaving, though it was another Saudi club, Al-Wehda, who had come up with the two lorryfuls of cash he was requesting.
Brazilians are used to losing their best players – and Europe’s top leagues have not been the only destination for some time now – but for Corinthians supporters, losing their messianic manager to a little-known club from Mecca left a bitter taste in the mouth.
Indeed, the last time the Saudi league had appeared in the Brazilian media, it was not for positive reasons. In 2017, Felipe Adão had taken Al-Wehda to FIFA to get his contract annulled after the club had failed to pay his wages for several months. He ended up not playing for a year while the situation was resolved.
So, despite the mountains of money he had been offered, it appeared a risky move for Carille, who had received several other lucrative offers. What, then, convinced him everything would be fine?
The answer appeared in the Brazilian media over the next few days and his name was Turki Al-Sheikh. Not that they knew it then, but Brazilians would be hearing a lot more of him over the next few months.
Turki bin Abdulmohsen bin Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh, to give him his full title, is a minister and adviser to the Saudi Royal Court and, more crucially for our purposes, was chosen as head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority [GSA] in September 2017.
Appointed to the role by Mohamed bin Salman shortly after he was made Crown Prince, Al-Sheikh also holds positions on the boards of the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee, the Union of Arab Football Associations, and the Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation. Al-Sheikh’s plans for football in Saudi Arabia are grand and he has wasted little time in putting them into action.
“When Saudi qualified for the World Cup, [Al-Sheikh] was really getting into his own,” explains Ali Khaled, editor of FourFourTwo Arabia. “Bert van Marwijk was the manager of Saudi at the time and he was let go. The story goes that they wanted him to spend more time in Saudi Arabia, but he said he would like to spend more time with his family in Holland.
“It was incredible. Not only had [van Marwijk] got the side to the World Cup, he had actually put a lot of time and effort into the grassroots level. He sent his coaches around Saudi to improve age group systems.”
As van Marwijk’s replacement, Al-Sheikh brought in former Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza, who at the time was managing the United Arab Emirates. Bauza lasted just three games in his new job before his boss decided he had seen enough. Another Argentine, Juan Antonio Pizzi, was then charged with taking the team to the World Cup.
Al-Sheikh, meanwhile, had come up with a hare-brained plan intended to assist Pizzi in his endeavour. In January 2018, he would send nine Saudi Arabian players out on loan to Spanish clubs in order to “learn what it is to be real professionals, gain experience and represent Saudi Arabia abroad.” Middle Eastern football expert Khaled was never convinced by the idea.
“For a start, nobody improves in four months,” he says. “And far more importantly than that, the Spanish players are not going to step aside for the Saudi players to come in – and that’s exactly what happened.”
Despite the GSA reportedly paying the Spanish sides handsomely for hosting the Saudi players, only one of the nine got any minutes on the pitch and only three were included in Pizzi’s travelling party for Russia.
“It further destabilised the national team”, says Khaled. “We saw them in the World Cup; they were pretty poor. And there was no massive improvement from the three who were supposed to be the best players.”
This drive to develop the game is part of a project called ‘Saudi Vision 2030’, which aims to widen the Kingdom’s influence and diversify its economy. And as we have seen increasingly in recent years, football is the perfect vehicle for achieving the first of those two goals.
To return to where we began, the appointment of Carille as manager of Al-Wehda can be seen as part of a much more extensive initiative. In June, Al-Sheikh told Bloomberg that, “There will be a great economic impact… we want to be among the 10 best leagues for soccer in the world and create fertile ground for privatisation.”
The GSA lifted the cap on foreigners, allowing teams to field seven overseas-born outfielders players plus a goalkeeper. Al-Sheikh’s plans to purchase minutes for his best players in a competitive league had not worked, so he decided to bring the competitive league to them. And the man in control was ready to raid South America’s largest country for new recruits, both to accompany the ex-Corinthians coach at Al-Wehda and for other clubs in the Saudi top division. There is no novelty in Brazilian players going to Saudi Arabia, but this time they were aiming higher.
At Al-Wehda, Rómulo Otero – the owner of football’s most dangerous free-kick – was brought in on loan from Atlético Mineiro and was quickly followed by Sport Recife’s Anselmo, São Paulo’s Marcos Guilherme, Renato Chaves from Fluminense and Fernandão of Fenerbahçe.
They weren’t alone. Romarinho, Thiago Carleto, Valdivia and Jonas moved to Al-Ittihad; Al-Batin plumped for Adriano Fachinni, Baraka, João Gabriel, Lucas Tagliapietra; Brazil international Giuliano and Petros have arrived at Al-Nassr; and Al-Shabab signed Euller and Luiz Antônio.
One of the men set to benefit from this influx of Brazilians into the Kingdom, Brazilian agent Flávio Viana, told GloboEsporte at the time of Carille’s move that Turki Al-Sheikh has “assumed control of football in the country and is giving a lot of credibility to the sport [there]. Today, nobody does anything without his say-so.” Including, one would imagine, signing a small army of Brazilians.
“It was common in Saudi Arabia”, Viana continues, “for a club to sign a player for an exorbitant sum, pay part of that sum upon signing and the not pay the rest of the contract. [Al-Sheikh’s] idea is to change that.”
As well as bringing in the foreign players to improve the standards of the domestic game, Al-Sheikh secured a record TV deal for a Middle Eastern league and intends to put 1,000 12-16-year-olds in special football academies to ensure the long-term prosperity of the Saudi national team.
While all this was happening for the powerful Saudi politician at home, one of the other footballing pies in which he had inserted a digit was starting to go stale. Appointed honorary president of Egyptian giants Al Alhy in December, Al-Sheikh later fell out with the club’s president over transfer targets.
Not wanting to relinquish his influence in African football, however, his answer was to go it alone. Al-Sheikh proceeded to purchase Al Assiouty Sport, a small club who had finished ninth in the 2017-18 Egyptian Premier League, rename it Pyramids FC and move its home games from Beni Suef to Cairo.
The plan, rather immodestly, is to dominate Egyptian and then African football, knocking Zamalek and Al-Shiekh’s former associates Al Ahly off their perch as the continent’s most powerful clubs. The best way to go about that? Buy another phalanx of Brazilians, of course.
Immediately the club signed flying winger Keno from Palmeiras for an African-record fee of $10m; he was swiftly followed by Arthur Caike, Ribamar, Carlos Eduardo and, finally, Corinthians’ best player and Brazil international Rodriguinho. To oversee them all, Botafogo’s Alberto Valentim was plucked from Rio de Janeiro and plonked into the vacant managerial hot seat.
Not content with the South American influx, Al-Sheikh also invested heavily to bring in Egyptian stars like Tarek Hamed and Ali Gabr from Zamalek, weakening direct title rivals in the process.
“A lot of fans in Egypt just hate this,” Ali Khaled says. “On Twitter and social media, they are very negative about the whole thing. There’s constant abuse.
“It’s unintended, but it’s actually given Egyptian football a kick up the backside. I’m sure this is not the right way to build a football club, but things are starting to happen. There were no fans allowed for a long time, but they allowed a few in last week and now they’re thinking that they’ll allow each club to have 5,000 [per game]. Maybe it’s given the traditional clubs like Al Ahly and Zamalek a bit of a scare. Imagine a club now in Scotland that has more money than Celtic and Rangers – it’s a bit like that.”
As he looks to spread his influence, Al-Sheikh has also set up a new television channel, Pyramids TV, which has bought rights to Spanish, English and other European games. They have also attracted some big-name guests, as noted by Khaled.
“They had Ronaldinho on Saturday and the previous week they had Roberto Carlos. In the first week of the season they had John Terry and Jermaine Jenas via satellite. The main man is Mido, [and] you can see he’s called on all his pals. This week it was Robbie Keane with Ronaldinho.”
From a Brazilian perspective this episode also highlights some interesting, if not entirely novel, points; most notably, the inability of even the biggest clubs in the land to hold on to their best players and managers.
“This movement with Egypt is not going to affect the football world order,” says Rodrigo Capelo, a journalist for Brazilian magazine Época. “What becomes evident to me, though, is that here in Brazil we have a [club] structure of non-profit associations, which has remained the same since football arrived in Brazil.”
In practice, this means that teams are run by amateur presidents elected by a limited group of mostly wealthy social club members who pay to use the facilities, such as swimming pools and tennis courts, that the organisations provide.
It may sound democratic, but the reality is less appealing. Corinthians, for example, boast of having around 30 million fans. Their current president Andrés Sanchez, however, was elected last year with just 1,235 votes from a total of 3,642 participants.
“The whole world has adapted to having this structure of private limited companies… and in some cases publicly traded companies,” Capelo says. “Football is advancing to various other models to find new sources of finance.
“[In Egypt] the structure exists for a billionaire to arrive, invest and put another actor into the market. Pyramids is going to be excellent for competitiveness, it will be excellent for the market, because of the new players, players arriving from abroad.
“There’s no way this could happen in Brazil. There’s no chance of a billionaire buying Atlético Paranaense [a mid-sized Brazilian club] and putting money in to attract players and heat up the market, because we are tied to the model of non-profit associations.
“Brazilian football is financially very fragile. It’s not just that it’s vulnerable to foreign money, it’s that it begs for foreign money to arrive. Every time a billionaire buys a football club and wants reinforcements, he comes and looks at who the best are [in Brazil] and says, ‘Bring them from there’.”
This undying fascination with Brazil, the idea that purchasing its players instantly brings quality and glamour – a view clearly held by Al-Sheikh – is illustrative of the fundamental issue with the country’s football. Brazil’s reputation is so rich that it can continue exporting its footballing workforce – seemingly infinitely – without the buyers looking for alternatives, while the outdated organisation and financial weakness means they have no option but to sell. The money is often used to service debt instead of being reinvested in players or academies.
At some point this will become unsustainable. Tostão, the striker from the great 1970 Brazil side, opined in a recent newspaper column that on an individual, player-by-player basis, “the level of the Brazilian league is weak.”
Others, however, are less concerned. Felippe Rocha covers Botafogo for sports daily Lance!, and when asked whether Brazilian fans worried about the Campeonato Brasileiro being overtaken by leagues like the Chinese Super League or Saudi Professional League, his response is to chortle.
“Believe me, no! We have 210 million people here in Brazil and we have a phrase: ‘Each child is born playing football.’ The feeling that I see in our country is that they may buy many, many players, but Brazil will still be making other good players… Brazilian people think our soccer will keep producing good players forever.”
Back in Egypt, Al-Sheikh has already fired Alberto Valentim, the manager he took from Botafogo, after just three games. According to reports, the owner issued an order not to play centre-forward Ribamar, to whom he had taken a dislike. Valentim selected him anyway and, deliciously, Ribamar scored twice in a 2-1 win. The player in question, alongside another purchase in Arthur Caike, have now been loaned out. Both, you’ll be surprised to discover, to clubs in Saudi Arabia.
Valentim has returned to Brazil with two years’ salary in his pocket and, with those elected club presidents’ desire to win elections leading to an obscene turnover of managers, has already been offered a job by Botafogo’s Rio rivals Vasco Da Gama.
Corinthians, meanwhile, are struggling without Carille and Rodriguinho. They have lost their last three league games and have slipped to eighth in the table, 16 points behind leaders São Paulo, with no chance of defending their title.
If Corinthians could be bought and sold like most of the world’s football clubs, perhaps they would be able to attract investment to keep hold of the likes of Carille and Rodriguinho. But then again, if that meant being the plaything and PR vehicle of a repressive regime, would it really be worth it?