Saudi Pro League Player Whipped By Incensed Fan

If you were told a few years ago that Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante’s team would be taking on Neymar’s squad in a cup final, you would have thought you’d be in for some good shit, or at least a game with real stakes. But no, since everyone involved here has cashed out and gone to pretend to play soccer in the Saudi Pro League, all we are left with from the Saudi Super Cup final is the image of an incensed fan whipping Abderrazak Hamdallah as he left the pitch. Hamdallah, who missed a penalty but also scored Al Ittihad’s lone goal in their 4-1 defeat to Neymar’s Al Hilal, was leaving the field when he got into it with a pitchside fan. The Moroccan striker splashed some water at the fan, who responded by winding up and unleashing some whip strikes.

It’s been a pretty grim season for the newly ambitious Saudi Pro League. The Saudi Public Investment Fund (which owns the four most powerful clubs) spent the summer lavishing life-changing sums on European pros in hopes of creating the appearance of a competitive league, or at least enough star power to cement itself as a legitimate going concern on the global soccer stage. When they brought over the 36-year-old Benzema and the 33-year-old Kante, it made sense for all parties, as neither player had all that much to lose, though they also signed a bunch of good players in their primes, like Aymeric Laporte, Allan Saint-Maximin, and Franck Kessie. The league even poached some young fringe internationals like Gabri Veiga. Their financial reach easily outspanned that of MLS or any of their now-crashed and burnt competitors in the upstart league space, like the Chinese Super League.

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The problems sprouted up quickly. Jordan Henderson only lasted a few months before taking a huge pay cut to return to play for Ajax, despite the sunk cost of self-inflicted reputational damage. Benzema has been beefing with his manager, Laporte said he’s not having any fun, several managers have been visibly unhappy, and even chief SPL propagandist Cristiano Ronaldo is earning red cards and being mocked by the few fans who have bothered to show up (nobody is going to the games). It seems like a real bad time, and while the tilted incentive structure means that some number of players will take the payday as long as the PIF keeps the money tap open, the Al Saud family’s ambitions will necessarily be curtailed by, in short, how bad the vibes are. By which I mean: You might get whipped by a guy in the crowd if you miss a penalty.

Surely they will try to lure over more stars this summer while attempting to retain those they brought over last summer. The country will host the men’s World Cup in 10 years, and as their recent forays into tennis and golf showed, they aren’t slowing down on pumping money into sports. The PIF, which already owns Newcastle, has the ability to out-compete anyone, even other sovereign wealth funds. This sort of gravity-shifting event, as Billy explained last year, is not entirely without precedent, nor does it represent a change in kind rather than degree. Unless a lot more fans start whipping a lot more players, the SPL is probably here to stay.

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