July 26, 2023 - 1:10pm

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Dying Detective, Sherlock Holmes lies bedbound, apparently dying of a rare but deadly “out-of-the-way Asiatic disease”. (Spoiler: he’s not.) Much intrigue ensues, with plot twists and amazing feats of deduction in search of a cure. What is really interesting about this tale, though, is not so much what happens to the detective, but what it reveals about the Edwardian imagination of the time, just before the outbreak of the First World War. 

Hanging over the story is the malign spectre of the East corrupting the peaceful order of things at home. Britain had taken possession of strange, faraway lands, but now those distant places have found their way to Britain and are corrupting the metropole itself. Some academics now argue that what the dying Holmes is really seeking to protect in this story is the Victorian status quo itself, “threatened by some malignant influence” from abroad. 

Whether or not this is true, the Holmes story does reveal a latent concern in the European imagination about the dangers of imperial conquest — or even what we might now call globalisation. Similar fears hang over the panicky discussions taking place today across Europe, now concerning the sudden expansion of the Saudi football league. In recent months a host of star players have moved to the division from top European clubs, having been offered astronomical salaries which far outstrip anything they could earn even in the Premier League, the richest league on earth.

First there was Cristiano Ronaldo, who moved to Saudi side Al Nassr from Manchester United at the end of last year. His salary doubled to around £173 million, making him the highest paid athlete in the world. Then, at the start of this summer, reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema left Real Madrid for Al-Ittihad for a salary of £172 million. Lionel Messi, on course to win his eighth Ballon d’Or this year, was then reportedly offered £320 million a year to join the league, only to reject the opportunity. 

Now the man widely considered to be Messi’s successor as best in the world, Kylian Mbappé, has apparently been offered £600 million a year — six times what he is on at Paris Saint Germain, which already makes him comfortably the highest paid player in European football. 

The general reaction is that the whole spectacle is obscene, and disruptive to global football. The upshot is that really good European players — some of whom have spent the past few years exclaiming the importance of LGBTQ+ rights — are now choosing to move to a league where the standard is far worse, the competition far less esteemed, the clubs unknown, and the regime in charge among the most authoritarian and socially conservative on the planet. 

In a sense, the whole structure of European football is under attack. What if more players in their prime start leaving? What if people no longer care about Barcelona vs Real Madrid and start watching Al Nassr vs Al-Ittihad? What if the Champions League loses its lustre?

But like the Sherlock Holmes stories, what really hangs over this saga is the knowledge that we are the ones who started it. For years it has been considered perfectly normal for European clubs to buy up all the best young talent from Africa, Asia or South America; for teenagers to be lured to Europe with life-changing salaries. No-one questions this. 

More, not only did we go around the world buying up the best players, we then began inviting the world to invest in our leagues so that we could have even more money to buy even more players. And where did this money come from? Often from the Middle East. Qatar bought Paris Saint Germain, Abu Dhabi bought Manchester City, and Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle United. 

It wasn’t considered obscene when Newcastle tempted away AC Milan’s bright young Italian star Sandro Tonali, a boyhood Milan fan and potential future captain, because their Saudi money facilitated an offer that Milan couldn’t turn down. But now Saudi Arabian sides themselves are doing the same, we panic and condemn the greed on display.

Like the Edwardians over a century ago, we are up in arms about the threat to the old order that we created but now cannot control. We have taken football to the world and now the world is coming for our football. We can hardly complain.

is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.