Saudi Arabia a key player in football

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman and Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. chairman and CEO, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last October.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Salman and Masayoshi Son, SoftBank Group Corp. chairman and CEO, attend the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last October.PHOTO: REUTERS

It holds power over World Cup hosting and expansion decisions, US$25b Fifa investment

NEW YORK • In football, all roads suddenly lead to Saudi Arabia.

Fifa, the sport's world governing body, is facing three major decisions in the coming weeks and months, and Saudi Arabia, long a bit player among football's ruling classes, is positioning itself as one of the most powerful influencers in each of them.

•Foremost is the vote on the 2026 World Cup hosts.

•There is also a proposal to expand the 2022 World Cup to 48 teams.

•Finally, Fifa has to decide how to proceed in ongoing negotiations with investors who are offering as much as US$25 billion (S$33.5 billion) for two new football tournaments that could reshape the existing landscape of club and international events.

Saudi Arabia, which has qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2006, is among the biggest investors in the consortium that has offered the potential windfall to Fifa.

Leaders of the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup, including Carlos Cordeiro, president of US Soccer, travelled to the Middle Eastern country recently to make a pitch to leaders of a dozen national federations after Saudi Arabia created a new regional bloc earlier this month-the South West Asian Football Federation.

If the group continues with Saudi Arabia at its helm, the Saudis could potentially control more than simply their own vote on the important matters facing Fifa. Officials from 10 mainly South Asian and Arab countries posed for a picture to announce the formation of the group, which will be based in Jeddah and led by Adel Ezzat, the head of football in Saudi Arabia.

Its honorary president is Turki Al-Sheikh, the kingdom's top sports official and a close associate of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Salman.

Experts say Saudi Arabia's moves in football dovetail with its long-term goals of modernising its society and economy, and becoming less oil dependent.

The country has also considered starting a major regional sports network, and Saudi executives have signed long-term deals with wrestling franchise WWE and the Formula E motor racing series.

Late last year, Fifa president Gianni Infantino visited the Al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh to meet key Saudi figures, including King Salman and his son. Since then, Saudi representatives have travelled to Fifa to discuss several ventures, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.

After setting up their new federation, Saudi Arabia hosted delegates from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries. They were given watches and told that the country planned to create new regional tournaments and fund football development, according to people who attended the event.

The Bangladesh football president, Kazi Salahuddin, who attended the meeting, said the hosts also took care of all flight and accommodation arrangements.

"They said, 'We want to help each other in football'. As a president, that sounds good to me," Salahuddin said.

Setting up the new federation without the approval of Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) violates existing guidelines, but while AFC has given the participants until tomorrow to provide an explanation for their attendance, Fifa has declined to comment.

Until the recent developments, Saudi Arabia's influence in football has been largely marginal compared to that of its neighbours, notably Qatar.

The Gulf state has spent the past year isolated by much of the region because of a blockade Saudi Arabia set up after it accused Qatar of not doing its part to confront terrorism.

Al-Sheikh also recently tweeted that should Qatar, which controversially secured rights to host the 2022 World Cup amid bribery accusations, be found to have violated regulations, it should be stripped of the tournament.

Saudi Arabia has since emerged as one of the most enthusiastic backers of the North American bid to stage the 2026 World Cup, which would take place mostly in the United States. Morocco, the only challenger, is backed by Qatar.

Earlier this week, a second group of North American officials travelled to the Middle East on behalf of the World Cup bid. Their destination: Saudi Arabia - just days after Cordeiro had visited the country.

"We value Saudi Arabia the same as all the other 207. Every vote counts," the North American bid said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia also backs the proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is now scheduled for 2026.

If that happens, the 2022 event will likely have to expand beyond Qatar to other countries in the region, including the kingdom.

But it is the potential blockbuster deal with Fifa that may attract the most attention for Saudi Arabia.

If Fifa signs on, it would lead to some of the most significant changes in the sport's history, while also providing Infantino with a major financial trampoline from which he could launch his bid for re-election next year.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 20, 2018, with the headline 'Saudi arabia a key player in football'. Print Edition | Subscribe