Time: May 18, 2018
In soccer, all roads suddenly lead to Saudi Arabia.
FIFA, the world governing body, is facing three major decisions in the coming weeks and months, and Saudi Arabia, long a bit player among soccer’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 in Qatar to 48 teams. Finally, FIFA has to decide how to proceed in ongoing negotiations with investors who are offering as much as $25 billion for two new soccer tournaments that could reshape both club and international competition. Saudi Arabia 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, the president of U.S. Soccer president, traveled to Saudi Arabia recently to make a pitch to leaders of a dozen national federations after Saudi Arabia created a new regional bloc — 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 soccer in Saudi Arabia. Its honorary president is Turki al-Sheikh, the kingdom’s top sports official and a close associate of the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Experts say Saudi Arabia’s moves in soccer dovetail with its long-term goals of modernizing 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 W.W.E. and the Formula E motor racing series.
“It’s a new leadership with profoundly different ideas,” said David B. Roberts, a Gulf expert at King’s College in London.
Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Saudi Arabia this year qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Only once has it played beyond the group stages. Politically, it has largely avoided interfering with how the sport is governed, and it has rarely had a member on FIFA’s top board.
Late last year, FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, visited the al-Yamamah Palace in Riyadh. He met with key Saudi figures, including King Salman and his son, the crown prince. Since then, representatives from the country traveled to FIFA to discuss several ventures, according to officials with knowledge of the meetings.
After deciding to organize the South West Asian Football Federation, Saudi Arabia hosted delegates from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and several other countries, who were given watches and told that the country planned to create new regional tournaments and fund soccer development, according to people who attended the event. The gift and the funding pledge may breach ethics regulations, according to a senior official connected to Asian soccer.
The Bangladesh soccer president, Kazi Salahuddin, who attended the meeting, said the Saudi Arabian hosts also took care of all flight and accommodation arrangements. He said his deputy collected the gift that was set aside for him.
“I don’t wear a watch so I had no interest in looking at it,” insisted Salahuddin, who also heads a separate South Asian regional group.
“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 violates existing guidelines. The A.F.C. has given participants in the meeting until May 21 to provide an explanation for their presence there. FIFA declined to comment.
Until the recent developments, Saudi Arabia’s influence in soccer has been largely marginal compared to that of its regional neighbors, notably Qatar. Qatar 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.
The Gulf state controversially secured rights to the 2022 World Cup amid bribery accusations that the tiny, gas-rich emirate denies. Al-Sheikh, the top Saudi sports official, said recently on his Twitter feed that should Qatar be found to have violated regulations it should be stripped of the tournament, and replaced by England or the U.S.
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, has secured the backing of Qatar. Earlier this week, a second group of North American officials traveled 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 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.
The potential deal with FIFA may attract the most attention for Saudi Arabia. If FIFA signs on, it would lead some of the most significant changes in the history of the sport, while also providing Infantino with a major financial trampoline from which to launch his bid for re-election next year. The possibility of FIFA selling out to an investor group has led to stormy meetings between its leadership and key soccer stakeholders.
A gathering of clubs, leagues and players brought together to form UEFA’s Professional Football Strategy Committee discussed the issue at length at a meeting in Lyon, France, on Wednesday before issuing a strongly worded statement. They decried the haste with which Infantino is attempting to push through an agreement for a 24-team World Cup for clubs and a league for nations that would be bankrolled by the fund whose identity has been kept secret.
Infantino, citing a nondisclosure agreement, said he was limited in what he can reveal.
Still, the sums of money on offer have turned heads. Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of soccer’s richest clubs, among a group of seven major teams to have received a private pitch from Infantino, have in recent days spoken out in favor of the process. Manchester United’s chief executive, Ed Woodward, appeared to talk up the idea during a conference call with investors on Thursday.
The fund is guaranteeing FIFA $3 billion for each edition of the quadrennial Club World Cup, three times more than FIFA’s best-case valuation.
Lars-Christer Olsson, who heads an organization representing European Leagues, said the lack of information was a problem, as was the potential for a country to buy into soccer for political reasons.
“Sports should stand aside from political systems because otherwise it will not be credible,” said Olsson, a former general secretary of UEFA.
“I’m very critical of any involvement of state subsidies to get a position in sports. I think that’s dangerous for the sport itself.”