Neymar’s endorsement was not, perhaps, the most ringing. Back in Brazil to play for his national team this month, he had been asked — not for the first time — to address the lingering suspicion that, in leaving Paris St.-Germain for Saudi Arabia and Al-Hilal, one of the finest players of his generation might not have chosen the most challenging coda to his career.
Neymar’s immediate instinct was to dismiss the premise. “I can assure you the game in Saudi Arabia is the same: The ball is round, we have goal posts,” he said with a slight smile and a nervous laugh. “For the names that have gone to Saudi Arabia, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saudi league was better than the French,” he added. He was still smiling then, but it did not feel quite as warm.
Clearly, the accusation — one thrown not just at Neymar, but at the dozens of players who have been enticed to the Saudi Pro League over the course of the summer — touches a nerve.
That is no surprise. Nobody likes to be told that they have chosen the easy route. No athlete would tolerate the intimation that what they do, and where they play, does not really count. In general, soccer players fall philosophically somewhere between realism and cynicism, but even they tend to bristle when they are told their primary — their only — motivation is money. The early evidence, though, does not exactly play in Neymar’s favor.
Establishing the comparative quality of different leagues is an inexact science. What makes one competition stronger than another? Is it the technical brilliance of the best teams? Is it incompetence of the worst? Or is it the cumulative accomplishment of the tournament’s constituents? Is it the peak, the trough, or the median?
Or does it have nothing to do with the ability of the players at all? Is the best league the one that is most entertaining, or the most competitive, the one in which the greatest proportion of games are evenly balanced? (Other answers include: “The one in which you are most emotionally invested” and “The one with the highest production values and smartest marketing strategy.”)
It is hard to believe, though, that the first installment of the new-and-improved Saudi Pro League outstrips France’s Ligue 1 — by common consensus the weakest of Europe’s five major leagues — on any of those criteria.
(To be clear, it would be unreasonable to think it should. A whole competition cannot be transformed in a single summer, and even the Saudi authorities themselves accept it is an ongoing process. Those who have been working there for longer than Neymar regard the standard as hugely variable, still, with the strongest sides roughly on a par with mid-table Premier League teams, and the weakest some way below.)
Still, Neymar — who missed more than 100 games through injury during his six seasons in France, a crude but not entirely irrelevant gauge of the intensity of that competition — cannot have failed to notice the difference.
On Thursday, during Al-Ittihad’s win against Al-Okhdood, the Cameroonian striker Léandre Tawamba performed a nutmeg on another of the league’s high-profile recruits, the Brazilian midfielder Fabinho. The trick itself was neat, inventive, worthy of a ripple of applause. Fabinho’s reaction, though, was telling.
He did not immediately snap at Tawamba’s ankles. He did not tussle with the forward, his brow furrowed in grim determination, as he surely would have done during his days at Monaco, or Liverpool. He chose, instead, just to stand and watch for a moment. So did the rest of Al-Ittihad’s midfield. The whole thing seemed to play out in slow motion.
Any number of brief vignettes from the opening weeks of the Saudi season create the same impression. There are gifted players present, of course. There are moments of wonder. But for all the screaming headlines and the triumphalist spin that tends to greet another goal for Cristiano Ronaldo or another virtuoso improvisation from Karim Benzema, everything is undercut by quite how laissez-faire it all seems to be.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Soccer does not have to be played in the pell-mell style that is de rigueur in England and Germany. Intensity does not always equal beauty. Argentina, for example, has long had a tradition of a slightly more thoughtful playing style. And besides, there are extenuating circumstances: Saudi Arabia, even on a September evening, is still really quite hot.
More important, as Neymar and those who have made the same career choice this summer reflect on and come to terms with their decisions, there is a very good chance that the quality of the league does not matter in the slightest.
Saudi Arabia did not spend the summer just signing superstars. Through its media rights partners, its soccer authorities also reached agreements with a host of international broadcasters. This season, the league’s games will now be available in more than 130 territories, among them the United States (Fox), Britain, Germany and Canada (DAZN), and, eager to see what real soccer looks like, France (Canal+).
But that is not how the vast majority of people will engage with the Saudi league, because it is not how the vast majority of people engage with any league.
There has always been a discrepancy between live soccer’s value as content and the number of people who actually watch it. Even the most mouthwatering Premier League games attract only a couple of million viewers in Britain, and roughly the same number in the United States. (Where there are, you may have noticed, significantly more people.)
Instead, most fans consume the sport in either an abbreviated form — game highlights — or an abstract one, as a rolling, character-based drama that plays out across various strands of the media. In recent years, social media has allowed those to dovetail: You can follow the plot interspersed with brief clips of Ronaldo scoring a penalty or Neymar fooling a defender or Fabinho not really bothering to tackle someone.
It seems unlikely that Saudi Arabia is ignorant of that. The country’s approach has been sufficiently considered that it is reasonable to assume it has been factored into its plans. The way to win hearts and minds, in the digital age, is not to construct a league and imbue it with a slow-burn dramatic tension. That is hard, and takes time.
It is much quicker, and much easier, to use a competition to generate digestible, fun-size content, the sort that can be quickly and easily shared on Instagram and TikTok and whatever Twitter is called now, the kind that generates neither an emotional nor an intellectual response but one that can be encapsulated in an emoji. If people do not watch the games, the standard is irrelevant. All that matters is that you hit that like button.
Quite what that means for the future of the sport itself — of all sports, in fact — is not clear. Soccer’s authorities, the various feuding bodies in charge of the most popular pastime the world has ever known, have spent a surprising amount of time in recent years considering that very issue.
For Neymar and the others, though, as for Saudi Arabia, the answer is no more pressing than whether the average game in the Saudi Pro League is as good as the average game in Ligue 1. Nobody is judging Saudi Arabia on what its billion-dollar, oven-baked competition looks like over 90 minutes. All it takes is a few seconds.
All through the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2010, it seemed impossible that Barcelona would not retain the Champions League title. Pep Guardiola’s team was, by some distance, the best in Europe. Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andres Iniesta and their teammates breezed through the group. They blew past Stuttgart and then Arsenal in the knockout phase.
There are two interpretations for what happened next. José Mourinho, the coach of the Inter Milan team that knocked Barcelona out in the semifinals, would tell you that his tactical acumen derailed his great philosophical counterpoint’s attempt to conquer the continent once again.
Everyone else would suggest that the explosion of Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that sent an ash cloud over Europe and forced Barcelona to travel overland to the first leg of its semifinal with Inter in Milan, might have had something to do with it.
All of which is a long-winded, self-indulgent way of saying that — from this vantage point — any serious rationale for Manchester City’s not winning a second straight Champions League needs to involve at least one volcano. It is hard, certainly, to see it losing to any of its supposed rivals over two legs. (A final, I will concede, can be a little more arbitrary.)
Perhaps, then, it is time to concede that the UEFA Champions League is not the most interesting continental tournament this season. It is not even the most interesting tournament of that name. For intrigue, it cannot hope to compete with the Asian iteration of the competition.
There are, as you might have read, pros and cons to Saudi Arabia’s sudden taste for soccer teams and players, but it is hard to argue that seeing an Al-Hilal team featuring Neymar play in Mumbai is not a benefit. That is not all. Karim Benzema’s Al-Ittihad is set to travel to Iran, while — a personal favorite — Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr will make the trip to Istiklol, in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.
Partly, the pleasure is sincere: The prospect of welcoming Neymar, in the flesh, for a competitive game, is one that millions of fans in India will treasure. Partly, though, it is vicarious.
Quite how Al-Nassr tempted Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia is not clear; precise details of the pitch remain private. It is hard to imagine, though, that at any point anyone mentioned the bit about a game in Tajikistan, an autocracy so repressive that even the Premier League might think twice before allowing it to buy one of its soccer teams.
Not really a correspondence section, this week, so much as a brief note to say thanks to all of you who have been in touch in the last few weeks to seek clarification on the future of this newsletter/my general whereabouts. Each message has been gratefully received, and hopefully this edition settles some of the more outré conspiracy theories. If not, I can happily provide a contemporaneous photograph with a copy of today’s newspaper for verification.