LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s hopes of staging the 2027 Asian Cup have been boosted by last week’s decision of the Asian Football Confederation to give the country hosting rights to no less than five groups in the 2022 AFC Champions League.
On Thursday, it was announced that Riyadh will host two groups of Asia’s flagship club tournament, with Jeddah, Buraidah and Dammam all taking care of one each. These centralized venues, necessary due to travel restrictions and scheduling challenges in place due to the global pandemic, will be in use April 7-27 when the four teams will play each other twice. The fact that there are four cities involved is significant for the 2027 bid in which Saudi Arabia is up against India, Iran and Qatar.
“It is no secret that the AFC sees Saudi Arabia as a safe pair of hands when it comes to hosting major events, especially in difficult times,” a high-ranking AFC official told Arab News. “It is more than being safe, however. We know that the country has the necessary facilities, expertise and experience not just to be a reliable option but to be a top-class host nation.”
There was interest from other countries in the western half of the Champions League — the tournament is split into two geographic zones until the final — but instead of dividing the groups between different nations, as happened in 2021 when India and the UAE were also involved, the decision was made to make it an all-Saudi Arabian affair. In contrast, four of the five groups in the eastern zone will be hosted by three separate countries in Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, with a decision on the fifth still to be confirmed.
“There was some debate as to whether to give a group to cities such as Dammam and Buraidah, but there is no doubt that they can do a good job and there will be a festival of football all over the country in April,” the official added. “It also shows that there is now a close working relationship between the AFC and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.”
This is not the first time in recent months that the SAFF has been heartened by positive noises from the AFC regarding the decision that will be taken later this year after a vote from the body’s member associations, one that has been delayed due to COVID-19. Confederation officials were impressed last October and November as Riyadh smoothly hosted the latter stages in the western zone and also the final when local club Al-Hilal lifted the title for a record fourth time in front of over 50,000 fans. It has been hinted that, if centralized venues are still necessary for the knockout stages in the 2022 club competition, which will take place early next year due to the Qatar World Cup being held in November and December, Saudi Arabia will once again get the nod.
There are other reasons for fans in the country to be positive about 2027. The three-time continental champions have surprisingly never hosted the continent’s biggest event unlike rival Qatar, which staged the event as recently as 2011 and also did so in 1988. Iran’s current policy of not allowing women into stadiums is expected to count against their bid. India and the region of South Asia with a market of close to 2 billion people is seen by the AFC as well as FIFA as a necessary host for the future but there is a widespread feeling that the next decade may be preferable.
It leaves Saudi Arabia in a strong position when it comes to winning the rights to host the 2027 Asian Cup, and success in the AFC Champions League group stages — on and off the pitch — can only make that position even stronger.