Are you sick of the Dušan Vlahović transfer saga? Want to get away from the soul-killing existence of modern soccer? Well, guess what, friends: we’ve got a fantastic solution. Instead of reading about the pretty obvious tampering that Fiorentina’s star striker has undergone, why not read about a morally questionable sovereign wealth fund that might buy Fiorentina?
Yep, you read that right. The Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF), fresh off a controversial takeover of Newcastle United in the Premier League, has set its sights on Serie A as well, according to Alfredo Pedullà. While Inter Milan and AC Milan were the top choices, the Zhang family and Elliott Investments, respectively, declined to discuss the matter further, leading the $500 billion financial institution to turn its attention to little ol’ Fiorentina.
As you may recall, Rocco Commisso offered to sell his newly-acquired club earlier this year, setting a price of somewhere around €335 million during his infamous press conference. It wasn’t a surprise that there weren’t any takers: buying a club in the midst of a global pandemic isn’t for everyone.
However, the PIF were apparently interested, at least vaguely. Fiorentina and Newcastle have similar profiles—historic clubs that are popular with neutrals but boast little recent success—and it’s clear that the Kingdom wants to invest in athletics. Per Pedullà, the talks never got beyond exploratory discussions, but he seems pretty sure that the door is still wide open if the fund wants to walk through it.
For context’s sake, the PIF is chaired by Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who sees the PIF as his trustiest weapon in his battle to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from oil. While that’s a good and commendable goal, the PIF has come under fire as perhaps the least transparent sovereign wealth fund in the world, with none of its investments named in reports.
That opacity has led to outcry around the world. The other 19 Premier League teams condemned the fund’s purchase of Newcastle, claiming that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is very concerning. Various human rights organizations have also spoken out against the move, with Amnesty International UK director Kate Allen calling it “a blatant example of Saudi sportswashing” after reports of bin Salman asking for help from Boris Johnson to get the deal rammed through.
That’s the real concern here. While we can (and should) all grumble about the eccentric billionaires who want to buy professional sports teams, there is a tangible difference between an individual, however wealthy, and a nation that’s a member of the United Nations, especially one whose government engages in the murder of dissident journalists.
One of the problems here, of course, is that supporters can easily fall into a trap here: “Well, it’s not like any billionaire is an angel or saint, so what’s wrong with taking that PIF money and running?” While the first part of that statement is certainly true, it’s just as true that these things exist on a spectrum, not a binary, and we have to acknowledge that as mature humans.
Too, there will likely be some heated language highlighting the (very legitimate) claims of racism over fear of a Saudi takeover. Let’s all be clear: racism and xenophobia are factors in a lot of the rhetoric we’re going to hear, and they have no place on this website or in this world. However, such accusations are, in this particular case, an obfuscation. It is not that the PIF represents Saudi Arabia specifically that I object to; it’s that a sovereign nation is using its immeasurable wealth to rehabilitate its international image through sport.
Hopefully, though, this is as far as this story goes. Hopefully, Rocco (or someone else, if he’s losing interest) can keep this club on its current trajectory. That trajectory is haphazard, morally compromised, and frequently retrogressive, yes, but it’s on its own terms. Investment from the PIF would be an enormous change, and it would be a change for the worst.