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‘He Sold Himself to The Devil’: Messi, 2030, And A Very Uncomfortable Deal with Saudi Arabia

‘He Sold Himself to The Devil’: Messi, 2030, And A Very Uncomfortable Deal with Saudi Arabia
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Adam Crafton | The Athletic

Argentina versus Saudi Arabia at the World Cup in Qatar. A battle for early supremacy in Group C, yes, but also the prelude to a battle off the field that will take place in the coming years.

The 2026 World Cup will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico but bidding for the 2030 edition opened in June this year with the eventual winner to be selected at the 74th FIFA congress in 2024.

The only confirmed bid so far is a joint initiative by Spain, Portugal and Ukraine, which was announced earlier this year. However, two rival proposals are due to be formally launched.

One will be a South American co-production comprised of Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile. The other will be a combined effort by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece. The use of multiple countries within bids is explained by the fact the World Cup finals will become a 48-team competition from 2026.

“A South American bid for 2030 is very strong,” its coordinator Fernando Marin told The Athletic. “The region is a generator of talent that expresses itself all over the world. Additionally, on the 100th anniversary of the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, it would be a fitting location.”

In 1930, hosts Uruguay won the tournament, beating Argentina 4-2 in the final.

The South American joint bid was first publicized in 2017, when then Barcelona team-mates Luis Suarez [Uruguay] and Lionel Messi [Argentina] teamed up to promote their countries. Before a match between the two nations, Suarez wore a Uruguay kit with the No 20 on his jersey and Messi wore Argentina’s with the No 30.

Marin told news agency AFP the following year: “Messi will join us in this initiative, and Suarez certainly. We told him [Messi] about our aims, and he feels it’s doable. He showed great desire to help us. He will surely be the flag-bearer for the World Cup.”

This May, however, a fresh development arose when Messi, arguably the greatest and most famous footballer on the planet, signed a lucrative agreement to promote the state of Saudi Arabia.

The first thing to say is that the agreement is to promote tourism in that country, rather than a 2030 World Cup bid itself.

However, the national objective of Saudi Arabia is tied around “Vision 2030.” This is described by government literature as “a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world.”

A World Cup bid for 2030, therefore, seems heavily linked to the overall vision and promoting tourism does much to aid that cause. Other examples include the state’s sovereign wealth fund PIF deciding to acquire the English Premier League club Newcastle United, as well as backing the LIV Golf breakaway tour, plus a 10-year, $650million deal to host Formula One races and stage the 2019 heavyweight boxing clash between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

Dennis Horak, the Canadian ambassador to Saudi between 2015 and 2018, explains to The Athletic: “The whole opening of the entertainment and sports sphere is a big part of Vision 2030. With the LIV Golf [funded by Saudi Arabia] and now with these sorts of high-level sponsorships such as Messi, they’re trying to take it to another level and make it more global. Saudi’s reputation globally needs a sprucing up and it is about trying to rebrand the country.”

The length and terms of Messi’s agreement has not been publicized.

The Daily Telegraph previously reported Cristiano Ronaldo rejected an offer worth more than £5million per year to promote Saudi tourism and sources close to the negotiations, who wished not to be named to protect business relationships, confirmed Ronaldo had turned down an approach.

However, multiple sources familiar with the workings of ambassadorial roles in the Gulf region, who wished not to be named to prevent repercussions, suggested to The Athletic that Messi’s deal may be worth as much as five times more than the annual fee apparently offered to Ronaldo.

This becomes more credible when we consider the kinds of figures Saudi agencies have poured into the LIV Golf tour, for example, where Tiger Woods turned down a figure reported to be worth $700m-$800m to join the breakaway movement.

Representatives for Messi said they could not clarify the figures involved owing to the terms of confidentiality in the agreement, while the Saudi government did not respond to emails from The Athletic.

The Saudis first promoted the Argentinian as their tourism ambassador for the country during a trip to Jeddah, a resort city by the Red Sea, in May.

“This is not his first visit to the kingdom and it will not be the last,” said Ahmed al-Khateeb, the Saudi minister of tourism, in a tweet that showed Messi’s welcome at King Abdulaziz International Airport.

Messi later published a picture of himself on a yacht while watching the Saudi sunset.

“Discovering the Red Sea #VisitSaudi,” read the caption on Instagram, where Messi has over 370 million followers. The post was labelled as a “paid partnership” with Visit Saudi, which is a subsidiary company of the Saudi Tourism Authority.

Messi later joined Princess Haifa Al-Saud, assistant minister of tourism, on a tour of old Jeddah.

“I am glad that he was mesmerized by its essence, heritage and beauty,” Princess Haifa said on Twitter.

The Visit Saudi website now has a Messi landing page, “Lionel Messi wants you to unleash your inner thrill-seeker and uncover the unimagined. Whether you travel to discover new things, old things, or just to awaken something new inside yourself, Saudi satisfies on all fronts. So, what are you waiting for? Plan your adventure now!”

Messi’s support team declined to comment on whether his position promoting Saudi may conflict with his own country’s attempts to stage a World Cup in 2030, just as they declined to comment on how many times he will visit Saudi as part of his agreement to promote tourism.

More significantly, they declined to comment on Messi’s preparedness to take a vast cheque from a state which has been linked to human rights abuses including the assassination of the dissident Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as crackdowns on women’s rights activists, and those who speak out against the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman [MBS].

In 2021, the humanitarian organization UNICEF reported that more than 10,000 children had been killed since a Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in the conflict in neighboring Yemen. Messi remains a “Goodwill Ambassador” for UNICEF, a position he has held since 2010.

Messi’s representatives declined to comment on this apparent conflict, while UNICEF did not respond.

For Messi, it is one of countless partnerships for a player who earns in excess of €30million net to play for French champions Paris Saint-Germain, a club owned by a fund linked to the Qatari state, which has been accused of human rights abuses of its own.

In recent times, Messi has signed a $20million deal to promote the crypto fan token firm Socios, while he is also a face of the NFT-based game Sorare. He has also agreed sponsorship deals with Adidas, Pepsi, Budweiser, Ooredoo, Pro Evolution Soccer, Louis Vuitton, the ‘Israeli’ company Orcam, the Dubai Expo 2020, his own Cirque du Soleil show and the Chinese dairy company Mengniu.

In May, business website Forbes estimated Messi had earned more than $120million during the previous year.

Khalid Al-Jabri is a Saudi whose siblings Sarah and Omar are currently locked up in a jail there.

In a prior interview with The Athletic, he alleged that his two siblings are being used as “bargaining chips” to put pressure on their father, Dr Saad Aljabri, who is a former leading intelligence officer in Saudi Arabia.

He says: “MBS is attempting to normalize the country and Messi’s ambassadorial role contributes to that.”

“When I was at medical school, we used to gather together to watch him. So not only does he speak to the globe but internally everyone loves him… With this deal, they hit the jackpot.”

In 2012, Messi visited Saudi Arabia for the first time.

When his flight landed, the fanfare and security escort was so intense that the armed guards shepherding him through the crowds accidentally pointed the barrel of a gun towards Messi’s face.

Since then, the relationship has grown cozier, and much of this is down to a curious figure named Turki Al-Sheikh.

Al-Sheikh is the chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, which aims to promote social and economic growth in the country.

In May 2020, Messi sent a good luck message online to Al-Sheikh, who is a prominent Saudi politician and also the owner of Spanish La Liga football club Almeria.

The occasion was Al-Sheikh competing in a charity PlayStation football match against Saud Al-Suwailem, the former president of Saudi football club Al-Nasr FC.

Messi was among a cast of high-profile names, along with Diego Maradona, former Brazil stars Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldinho, the Italian defender Leonardo Bonucci and the former Dutch international Patrick Kluivert, who sent messages publicizing a game that aimed to raise funds for those in need in Saudi Arabia. Famous actors such as Charlie Sheen also sent messages, as well as the rapper Snoop Dogg.

When you see this video, Al-Sheikh may appear to be an overgrown child as he throws a joystick at the television, but he is, according to many observers of Saudi Arabia, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

Take, for example, the account of Khashoggi, the dissident brutally assassinated in Istanbul in 2018. According to a US intelligence report, MBS is deemed responsible for approving the operation that killed Khashoggi. Bin Salman describes the findings as flawed.

In a Newsweek interview recorded before his death but published after his passing, Khashoggi said that MBS “does not have political advisors except Turki al-Sheikh and Saud al-Qahtani”. He added: “They are very thuggish. People fear them. Turki al-Sheikh is in charge of sport, and it is rumored he has a few billions at his disposal to spend on sport and keep young people busy.”

Al-Qahtani ran media operations and propaganda for MBS and US intelligence reports previously linked him to the plot which saw Khashoggi murdered. A Saudi court cleared Al-Qahtani of charges in 2019.

Al-Sheikh, meanwhile, is a former security guard for MBS who became so friendly with the Crown Prince that he was allowed to run the Saudi Sports Commission. The New York Times has previously reported that Al-Sheikh played a “key role” when MBS detained hundreds of the wealthiest businessmen in Saudi Arabia in a Ritz-Carlton hotel in interrogations that were framed as an attempt to rein in corruption.

While running the Saudi Sports Commission, Al-Sheikh became a key interlocutor for those who wished to cash in on the money available in Saudi. He was responsible for organizing a fixture between Brazil and Argentina there in 2019, where his football club, Almeria, published a social media clip of Messi and Al-Sheikh hugging in the tunnel before the match with the caption “two lions.”

Messi also publicly wished Al-Sheikh happy birthday for his 40th, and he has previously visited the politician’s home in Riyadh with other Argentina players.

As part of his role as the chairman of the General Entertainment Authority, Al-Sheikh also secured Messi to advertise Riyadh Season for 2022 [an entertainment festival] on billboards which popped up in London, Dubai and Newcastle. A further video of Messi promoting Riyadh season in a PSG jersey also emerged.

It is particularly interesting as, for a long time, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar [the nation linked to PSG] had been tense owing to a blockade of Qatar by its neighbors. Al-Sheikh was at the heart of the attacks on Qatar, as he even suggested on Twitter on one occasion this year’s World Cup should be relocated to England or the USA if host Qatar was found guilty of ethical violations.

Yet Messi’s contract at PSG allows him to agree whatever commercial agreements he likes and the past year has seen a thaw in relations between Saudi and Qatar, to the extent that MBS and the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, sat either side of FIFA president Gianni Infantino during the opening match of the World Cup on Sunday, before being spotted walking arm-in-arm through the stadium.

Horak, the former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was expelled from the country in 2018 in response to Canadian statements in defense of human rights activists detained in the kingdom. He is balanced in his assessment, explaining that Western politicians garnered hope when MBS first sought to drive through reforms in the entertainment sphere but the killing of Khashoggi, combined with crackdowns on women’s rights activists, turned international opinion against the regime.

He says of Al-Sheikh: “I heard of his reputation and he was very much considered amongst that inner circle and MBS at the Royal Court, for sure. He’s certainly connected and getting Messi on board, I’m sure MBS would certainly love it. It would be another symbol of where we [Saudi Arabia] are in the world, in his eyes. We’re not in this isolated desert kingdom anymore. Given the profile he has internationally, it gives a greater sense of normality to [Saudi], so I think this would be seen as helping their bid [for the 2030 World Cup].

“The MBS brand has been probably irreparably damaged by the Khashoggi killing. And, you know, Saudi Arabia’s brand was certainly tarnished by it. And the more you can cozy up, either directly or indirectly, to world celebrities and then can burnish the brand of Saudi Arabia accordingly, I think he thinks will reflect well on [Al-Sheikh] as well.”

Khalid Al-Jabri, whose brother and sister remain jailed, told The Athletic: “I don’t mind players such as Messi going to play in Saudi as part of a team, because I don’t think Saudi fans should be deprived of that opportunity just because of atrocities committed by those who govern the country. What I have a problem with is Messi the individual making himself a tool for Saudi sportswashing.

“He sold himself to the devil.”

On Monday evening in Doha, Messi was selected for the pre-match press conference ahead of the opening Group C match on Tuesday between the country he represents on the pitch and the state that uses his image off it.

On television screens in the city, adverts of Messi promoting trips to Saudi Arabia are now broadcast on Qatari television.

At that press conference, his arrival was greeted by oohs, aahs, gasps and a flurry of camera phones clicking, while he was clapped out of the room by some of the journalists present.

The Athletic was not afforded a question in what was a busy media session but suffice to say Messi took more than a dozen questions and not one from the South American or Arabian media centered on his deal to promote Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi hopes were raised once more on Sunday evening when MBS sat beside Infantino at this World Cup’s first match, while the pair were also seen socializing together in Bali at the G20 summit last week. They have also watched boxing matches together previously.

Sources close to the Saudi state, who wished not to be named to protect business relationships, sense a growing confidence that their 2030 World Cup bid will be the preferred option, with a joint bid alongside Egypt and Greece likely to deflect the scrutiny that would come with a solo bid. The Saudis have also submitted a bid to host the 2030 World Expo, further underlining their desire to make Vision 2030 the culmination of their grand plan.

In conversations with prominent Argentine figures, the unease about criticizing Messi, even mildly, shines through. Asked if it appears strange that Messi is helping to heal the image of a rival for the right to host the 2030 World Cup, his former international team-mate Maxi Rodriguez said: “Yes, honestly, but well… you don’t know what could end up happening. You want the World Cup to be in your backyard. But there’s a lot that has to get done because it’s not easy to be the host of a World Cup. We’ll see what happens when the host for the tournament is elected. As an Argentine we’d like to experience it again in our country.”

Fernando Marin, coordinator of the South American joint bid involving Argentina, said: “Messi has a unique power on and off the field. He has grown in a superlative way. Messi is a brand in himself and a very powerful one. He is a brand for all of football, not for states. He will be a fundamental piece of a South American bid for 2030.”

He appears, too, to be a fundamental piece of their rivals’ ambitions for 2030.

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