JEDDAH: Saudi Arabian champions Al-Ittihad and their star striker Karim Benzema avoided Manchester City in the semifinal draw on Tuesday for the first FIFA Club World Cup to be hosted by the Kingdom.
The December 12-22 tournament for continental champions and the host nation’s league winner will be played in Al-Ittihad’s home city Jeddah.
The event will be the last Club World Cup in the current annual format before a 32-team version played every four years starts in June 2025. The inaugural host is the US.
Al-Ittihad will kick the tournament off against Auckland City, the champions of Oceania.
The winners of that tie will go on to face African champions Al-Ahly of Egypt in the second round for a place in the semifinals against the champions of South America.
The Copa Libertadores is currently at the semifinals stage featuring Boca Juniors of Argentina and Brazilian clubs Palmeiras, Fluminense and Internacional.
Manchester City, as the champion of Europe, also get direct entry to the semifinals and will play either Club León of Mexico or Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.
The final on Dec. 22 will be played at the 62,000-seat King Abdullah Sports City, home of Al-Ittihad.
Jaime Yarza, director of FIFA Tournaments, conducted the draw and was assisted by Yaya Toure, who won a memorable and dramatic final with Barcelona in 2009 and Manaf Abushugair, a two-time AFC Champions League winner with Al-Ittihad.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Saudi soccer federation leader Yasser Al-Misehal, who is now a member of the ruling FIFA Council, also attended the draw ceremony.
During his welcoming speech, Al-Misehal said: “We are prepared and excited to welcome the world to Jeddah in December, we are honored that Jeddah is hosting this world-renowned tournament.
He continued: “This tournament will be an extraordinary celebration of professional football, international talent and best-in-class skill, showcasing the great facilities, hospitality and unique culture of Saudi Arabia as a world-class sporting destination.
“The sports sector is a fundamental pillar of the continuous transformation process that the Kingdom is witnessing, as part of the Saudi Vision 2030, and enjoys unlimited support from the Saudi leadership, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in establishing its position as one of the most important and fastest growing sports destinations globally,” he added.
Infantino said he was looking forward to the tournament in Jeddah, adding it was a “special occasion” taking place “in a very special country, in a great football environment.”
After the draw Saudi Minister of Sports, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal wrote on his official account on X, formerly Twitter: “The world is awaiting an exceptional edition of the Club World Cup... we will meet in the Bride of the Red Sea (Jeddah) in December.”
He added: “Good luck to the representative of our country, Al-Ittihad, in a distinguished Saudi edition of the Club World Cup.”
Benzema, who came to the ceremony wearing the Saudi thoub, added: “I have played in the FIFA Club World Cup with Real Madrid and I have the experience to help my team.”
Yaya Toure said: “It is a great opportunity for football fans here in Saudi Arabia to witness some of the best football talent in the world. All of the teams participating are champions. It is high quality and the fans are really in for a treat.”
Hussam Ghali, former captain of Egyptian giants Al-Ahly expressed his happiness at the club being with the best teams in the world for the eighth time in a row and told the press that his team were looking forward to playing the winners of the Al-Ittihad and Auckland City tie.
* With AP