KEIR RADNEDGE ANALYSIS —- Saudi Arabia extended its power and influence within international football at the Asian confederation congress in Bahrain – and there is more to come.
The Saudis’ ambition impacted the international game two years ago with the doomed proposal, apparently encouraged by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, that the world federation should stage the World Cup every two years instead of the traditional four.
Concerns about Saudi influence had already been raised within the governing FIFA Council by speculation that state-backed finance might be forthcoming to support one of Infantino’s other pet projects, the expanded Club World Cup.
Over the past two years Saudi Arabia has made further statements with its investment fund’s purchase of English Premier League club Newcastle United and then, on the pitch, with the performance on the World Cup pitch in Qatar of the national team with a shock opening defeat of eventual champions Argentina.
Last month Saudi club AlNassr generated headline attention around the football world by signing veteran Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo to a £76m-a-year contract. Now the Saudi tourism bureau, contentiously, is to be a sponsor of the Women’s World Cup later this year in Australia and New Zealand.
Then AFC Congress this week saw Saudi Arabia, three-times Asian champions, chosen as host of the 2027 Asian Cup they had won in 1984, 1988 and 1996. More, Congress also brought the election of Saudi FA president Yasser Al Misehal among the AFC’s delegates on the FIFA Council.
Al Misehal, a member of both FIFA and the AFC’s disciplinary committees, also led the Saudi Pro League from June 2016 to October 2017.
He told congress: “This is a hugely exciting time for Asian football, and we are delighted to be selected as hosts of the AFC Asian Cup 2027™. As three-time winners of the tournament, we have a great history in the competition but our focus is on the future and growing the game all across Asia.
“It’s time to take Asian football to the next level and our efforts as hosts will prioritise that goal.”
Speculation has grown steadily over a Saudi bid to host the World Cup finals. A joint bid for 2030 with Greece and Egypt has been discussed informally. However this would run into significant opposition from Europe and South America, never mind breaching the rotation principle barring a host region from bidding for either of the next two tournaments.
More realistic would be a lone bid for the World Cup in 2034, a bid which would be strengthened immeasurably by the precedent of a winter staging set by neighbouring Qatar last November and December.
Such is the political progress of Saudi Arabia that Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who was re-elected by acclamation as AFC president for a third four-year term, may soon be looking over his shoulder.
Shaikh Salman, who took over in 2013 and is also FIFA’s senior vice-president, told congress: “So many milestones have been achieved and yet there remains so much more for us to accomplish together. Most importantly, our achievement underlines the stability and unity of the strong foundations that we have built together in the last decade.”
He also expressed sympathies to the Qatar Qatar football community on the death of former FIFA Council member Saoud Al-Mohannadi.
AFC president Shaikh Salman signed memorandums of understanding with the CONCACAF and Oceania confederations.
President (and FIFA vice-president): Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa (Bahrain)
Vice-presidents: West Zone, Hachem Haidar (Lebanon); Central Zone, Mehdi Taj (Iran); South Zone, Ugen Tsechup (Bhutan); ASEAN Zone, Zaw Zaw (Myanmar); East Zone, Ganbaatar Amgalanbaatar (Mongolia); AFC female exco members – West Zone, Susan Riyad Abdelrahim Alshalabi (Palestine); Central Zone, none; South Zone, Mahfuza Akhter (Bangladesh); ASEAN Zone, Kanya Keomany (Laos – also a FIFA Council member); East Zone, Han Un Gyong (N Korea).
FIFA Council: Kohzo Tashima (Japan), Kanya Keomany (Laos), Datuk Haji Hamidin Bin Haji Mohd Amin (Malaysia), Mariano Araneta Jr. (Philippines); Sheikh Hamad Khalifa Al Thani (Qatar); Yasser Almisehal (Saudi Arabia).
AFC exco members: West Zone, Abdullah Ahmed Alshaheen Alrabeea (Kuwait); Abdullah Nasser Aljneibi (United Arab Emirates); Central Zone, Irmatov Ravshan (Uzbekistan); South Zone, Bassam Adeel Jaleel (Maldives), Pankaj Bikram Nembang (Nepal); ASEAN Zone, Chris Nikou (Australia), Pol. Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung (Thailand); East Zone, Fok, Kai Shan Eric (Hong Kong).