When Steven Gerrard found early success managing Rangers, it fuelled the hopes and expectations of some Liverpool fans that he might one day take over at Anfield. His next move, joining Aston Villa and being backed significantly in the transfer market, didn’t go nearly as well.
The success of Unai Emery following him up at Villa further took the lustre off, and the question for many then became whether Gerrard would seek to rehabilitate his managerial career in the Championship or give up and transition full time into punditry.
Instead, he has found a third route and will reportedly take on managerial duties with mid-table Saudi Pro League side Ettifaq FC, continuing his career as a manager while also giving up on any realistic chance of rehabilitating his managerial career in a way that might make him an appealing target for top European clubs.
The Saudi Pro League, where Ettifaq finished 7th of 16 last season, ranks 58th in the world (ten worse than Scotland and ten better than Italy’s Serie C) and are embarked on a major spending spree as the government-backed league seeks to build on the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo and construct a global brand to aid the nation’s sportswashing efforts.
Already this summer, 35-year-old Karim Benzema has agreed to join Al Ittihad in exchange for a €200M a year salary. N’Golo Kanté, whose injury issues limited the 32-year-old to nine total appearances for Chelsea last season, has agreed a deal worth €100M a year.
Saudi’s Public Investment Fund, who are responsible for negotiating with players and funding the current undertaking, are trying to woo Kalidou Koulibaly with a similar offer. Lionel Messi was offered at least €500M a season before surprising everyone by choosing to MLS and Miami rather than taking the payday or putting a bow on his legacy by returning to Barcelona.
Closer to Liverpool, Roberto Firmino has been tentatively linked. Regardless the player specifics, we’ve seen this before. For a time, the Russian Premier League tried to turn themselves into a global league by overpaying for aging stars. The Chinese Super League made an even more robust effort.
The lack of an established foundation underpinning the heavy spend (especially in the case of China) and an unwillingness to continue when results were slow to arrive led to those bubbles bursting. Saudi Arabia appears to have more money to devote to the project and more of a track record explicitly leveraging their oil wealth for sportswashing purposes.
It seems doubtful, though, at least in the short term, that anyone not convinced to pay attention by Ronaldo joining Al-Nassr will be won over by the likes of Benzema and Kanté. The question, then, is if those spearheading the efforts are undertaking them with a true understanding of that—and of how long they will have to spend excessively before the situation might change.
For the moment, though, the spending is real. And for Steven Gerrard, the future is in Saudi Arabia with Ettifaq FC. It will give the ex-Red a significant payday but likely signals the end of any serious managerial ambitions as he follows promise at Rangers and disaster at Villa by heading to what, right now and likely for some time no matter the money thrown around, can be generously described as a footballing backwater.