RIYADH: Saudi Arabia are flying in qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Al-Hilal on Tuesday won a record fourth AFC Champions League title, and if footballing figures in the Kingdom are proven to be correct in anticipating success for the country’s bid to host the 2027 Asian Cup, their prediction would complete an historic hat-trick, on and off the pitch.
The race to host the next-but-one edition of Asia’s top tournament (2023 will take place in China) is being fiercely contested with India, Iran, and Qatar and a final decision will be announced early next year.
But a senior Saudi source told Arab News: “Discussions are happening as we speak, and we are very, very confident that the honors will be ours.”
The Saudi Arabian Football Federation launched its bid last year with the slogan “Forward for Asia,” and since then, the country has certainly hit new heights in Asian football.
The Green Falcons have won five and drawn one in six games so far in the final round of qualification for the World Cup and currently sit on top of Group B with four games remaining, four points ahead of Japan, and five clear of Australia. The team has one foot in Qatar.
Officials at the AFC were also impressed by the atmosphere created by fans in the latter stages of the Champions League in Riyadh and also in World Cup qualifiers, especially in October when more than 50,000 supporters roared the team onto victories over Japan and China.
Al-Hilal’s triumph in the AFC Champions League over Pohang Steelers of South Korea was not only an historic one but reinforced the sense that, at the moment, the Saudi Professional League was the best in Asia.
Earlier this month, representatives of the Asian Football Confederation visited the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam on a five-day inspection tour and were pleased with the facilities already in place in terms of stadiums and infrastructure.
In the SAFF’s favor, despite being one of the continent’s traditional powerhouses with three Asian Cup wins, five World Cup appearances, and a number of continental club trophies, Saudi Arabia has, somewhat surprisingly, never hosted Asia’s top tournament.
That gives the country a huge advantage over Qatar, one of its biggest rivals. The 2022 World Cup host could easily stage the continental tournament but did just that as recently as 2011 as well as in 1988.
Iran is another two-time host and also an Asian powerhouse but women not currently being allowed in stadiums to watch football is an issue. The AFC would love, at some point, to take its flagship tournament to India and its population of 1.4 billion people, but there is a feeling that it may be best to wait until the next decade.
For Saudi Arabia, it is looking good. It would have been perfect for the country’s football fans had the selection decision been made, as originally scheduled, in the coming days, when the country’s football successes on the pitch would have been front and center of the AFC congress. However, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has meant that the announcement will come early next year but that is unlikely to make a major difference.
Confidence is still high that Saudi Arabia will host the 2027 Asian Cup.