DUBAI: It remains a curiosity that Saudi Arabia, one of Asia’s leading football nations, has never hosted the continent’s premier international competition.
But the news last week that the Kingdom has put forward its candidacy to host the 2027 AFC Asian Cup will be welcome to football fans who have had to watch from a distance a competition that their country has won three times.
Saudi Arabia has a chequered history with the competition.
The national team did not even make it to the qualification rounds from the tournament’s inception in 1956 until 1980. When they finally did four years later, they won the cup twice in a row: in 1984, in Singapore, and 1988, in Qatar.
In 1996 they won it for the third time in four attempts when it was held in the UAE. But since then, the closest they have come to success has been by losing the final twice, to Japan in 2000 and Iraq in 2007.
China has already been confirmed as host in 2023, but the AFC has decided to announce the winners of the 2027 edition by early next year.
“The scale of the tournament now may mean some construction work, which of course takes planning and time,” Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, AFC president, said. “We need to develop the best facilities for players, fans and for our broadcast and commercial partners in line with the stature of the AFC Asian Cup as a world-class event.”
Saudi Arabia will find itself in as strong a position as it has ever been to host the competition, especially with its clubs excelling on the continental stage, with Al-Hilal the current AFC Champions League holders.
Wael Jabir, a leading footballer in the region and founder of and editor at Ahdaaf website, said the time had come.
“Saudi Arabia hosting the AFC Asian Cup feels like it is both long overdue, but also perfectly timed,” Jabir told Arab News. “For three-time Asian champions and a country with one of the continent's top domestic leagues to never have hosted the Asian Cup was always strange, but now with all the positive social and economic transformation in the country, 2027 is the best occasion for the nation to showcase its footballing heritage to the entire continent.”
Saudi Arabia has become a magnet for international sporting tournaments covering sports such as golf, motor racing and horse racing. These events have allowed sports fans around the world to see the country in a whole new light.
“Saudi Arabia has a rich and diverse indigenous culture that has long been difficult to access for people from across the world,” Jabir said. “With the opening of tourist visas and the relaxation of some laws, Asian football fans will get a taste of a Saudi culture that has football at its heart.”
Paul Williams, editor of The Asian Game website and podcast and veteran of two AFC Asian Cups, witnessed the impact the football tournament had on his own country Australia, which held the event in 2015.
“The impact of the Asian Cup was profound,” he told Arab News. “As a relatively new member of the AFC, Australia had always had a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with Asia, both in football terms but also culturally. And what the Asian Cup did was to break down some of those barriers and we saw a fantastic four weeks of football, but also a celebration of Asian culture and the diversity in that culture. It focused a spotlight on multicultural Australia and became a celebration of all the different communities here in Australia.”
Williams was also present at the 2019 edition of the tournament, which was held in the UAE.
“It was for the most part an enjoyable tournament,” he said. “It probably lacked a little of the festival tournament feel that we experienced in Australia, but what it had going for it was the compact nature of the tournament with the host cities so close to each other. So you could readily travel between the cities to attend multiple matches, which wasn’t the case in Australia because of the distances between the cities. The fact so many Middle Eastern teams were involved also meant there was a great atmosphere at a lot of the games, especially with the likes of Palestine and Syria.”
A tournament in Saudi Arabia would no doubt attract many fans from Arab countries in particular, in addition to the expatriate representing nations from across Asia. The size and demographic of the Kingdom’s population will likely ensure huge crowds, and the country already has a superior fan culture in its domestic football than some of its neighbors.
“Given Saudi Arabia’s prominence in Asian football over a long period of time it’s surprising that they’ve not yet hosted the tournament,” Williams added. “The country is definitely trying to open itself up to the world, with the likes of Formula E, Formula 1, WWE … all being staged in Saudi Arabia over the last few years, so hosting the Asian Cup is a natural progression on that and no doubt the fans in Saudi Arabia would respond in kind.”
Saudi Arabia has already shown it can hold many world-class sporting events. It’s time for football, and the AFC Asian Cup, to take center stage.