In Saudi Arabia’s stellar football year, federation boss sees 2034 World Cup fueling more rapid change

In Saudi Arabia’s stellar football year, federation boss sees 2034 World Cup fueling more rapid change
Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser Al- Misehal said in an interview that sport and society in the Kingdom are going through transformational changes ahead of staging soccer’s biggest event in 2034. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 February 2024
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In Saudi Arabia’s stellar football year, federation boss sees 2034 World Cup fueling more rapid change

In Saudi Arabia’s stellar football year, federation boss sees 2034 World Cup fueling more rapid change
  • Al-Misehal: We are trying to do everything for our people, for our economy and also we want to host as many people from all different places in the world
  • The Club World Cup final Friday closes the first FIFA tournament played in Saudi Arabia this century, and just weeks after the biggest hosting prize was all-but guaranteed

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s ambitions in football were made stunning and clear in 2023, and its upcoming 11-year journey toward hosting the men’s World Cup promises much more of the same.

In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser Al-Misehal said sport and society in the Kingdom are going through transformational changes ahead of staging football’s biggest event in 2034.

“We are trying to do everything for our people, for our economy and also we want to host as many people from all different places in the world,” Al-Misehal said.

Football has taken a prominent place in the Vision 2030 plan launched in 2016 to modernize the Saudi economy and society for a future beyond the oil production that fuels its wealth.

The program was driven from its start by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudis’ statement year in football started with hiring of Cristiano Ronaldo to a Saudi club and is ending with the current best team, Manchester City, playing for a title in Jeddah.

The Club World Cup final Friday closes the first FIFA tournament played in Saudi Arabia this century, and just weeks after the biggest hosting prize was all-but guaranteed.

FIFA fast-tracked finding a host for the 2034 World Cup in October and within days there was only one candidate.

The final FIFA decision must wait until late next year, but there is little doubt Saudi Arabia will add the 2034 World Cup to hosting the 2027 Asian Cup in men’s football and up to five straight editions of the Asian Champions League finals mini-tournaments through 2029.

One question for future years is if all 104 games at the World Cup will be played in Saudi stadiums — or will neighboring and nearby states be given some games to host.

Such an expansion would fit a pattern for bold plans from the crown prince and FIFA President Gianni Infantino who have built a close working relationship.

“The answer is that it’s going to be Saudi-only,” Al-Misehal said, noting that with “a lot of cities and a lot of stadiums that we have, our plan now is just to be a sole host.”

The size of Saudi Arabia compared to neighboring Qatar, which hosted a 64-game World Cup last year almost entirely in the city of Doha connected by metro lines, can be a key difference between the two tournaments.

“You will find different cultures, different people, different atmosphere,” Al-Misehal said of his home country, adding Qatar “did a great job. Logistics-wise it was perfect.”

“We welcome everybody, we respect everyone but at the same time we have our own values, our own culture,” Al-Misehal said. “Wherever we travel we always respect the values and culture of people that we see abroad and we expect the same from our visitors.”

The pace of recent reforms in Saudi society, he suggests, has been “much, much more than what we’ve done in the last 80 years.”

The pace of change in football has been remarkable.

Ronaldo’s arrival in January as a free agent on a reported $200 million annual pay deal was the spark for lavish recruitment from European clubs that cost about $900 million in transfer fees alone. The coach of European champion Italy, Roberto Mancini, was lured over to the Saudi national team.

More high-end offers at the top of the transfer market are expected in January, likely from the same clubs now majority-owned by the $700 billion Public Investment Fund.

“I have been approached personally by several clubs from different parts of the world offering to transfer their players,” Al-Misehal said, noting the deals are welcomed by the selling clubs for their own investment plans.

The spending, he suggests, is part of a coherent plan to improve stadiums and grassroots venues for boys and girls inspired by seeing the likes Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema play for their local clubs.

Any male players aged from seven to 25 today can think of being part of the host national team at the 2034 World Cup, Al-Misehal said.

“This shows exactly that we are in a transformational stage.”


Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
Updated 12 April 2024
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Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup

Al-Hilal beats Al-Ittihad 4-1 in final of the Saudi Super Cup
  • “It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates: Al-Hilal beat Al-Ittihad 4-1 in the final of the Saudi Super Cup on Thursday to stay on course for an unprecedented quadruple.
The trophy, lifted in Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, is the first of the season for the Riyadh giant but is unlikely to be the last as the team is also 12 points clear of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr at the top of the Saudi Pro League with just seven games remaining.
Al-Hilal, also in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and the Saudi King’s Cup, has also expanded its world record winning streak for top-tier teams to 34 consecutive games in all competitions.
Three days after defeating Al-Nassr in the semifinal, during which Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulaihi, two goals from Brazilian winger Malcom did the damage for Al-Hilal. Salem Al-Dawsari and Nasser Al-Dawsari sealed the win with late goals.
“It was a difficult game and I am very happy to score two goals,” Malcom told Saudi television. “We are also happy to collect our first title of the season but we are chasing more trophies.”
Ittihad striker Karim Benzema, signed from Real Madrid last summer, was unable to find the target while colleague Abderrazak Hamdallah made up for missing a penalty by getting on the scoresheet.
The Moroccan forward featured in a controversial incident at the end of the match, however, as he seemed to get involved in an altercation with a fan standing close to the field. The supporter was led away by security personnel.
In 2023, the Super Cup was expanded from a single game between the league champion and King’s Cup winner to include the runners-up from both competitions. It was also moved to Abu Dhabi.
Al-Hilal returns to the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the Asian Champions League semifinals as it seeks a record fifth continental title.
The club’s potentially record-breaking season comes after it spent about 350 million euros ($380 million) on player transfers after being taken over by the Saudi sovereign wealth operation, the Public Investment Fund which is controlled by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
Updated 11 April 2024
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French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga

French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis defends ex-teammate Ali Al-Bulayhi in Ronaldo saga
  • ‘He is far from being a bad person,’ says Gomis on X
  • Post attracts over 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets, more than 1,500 replies

RIAYDH: French footballer Bafetimbi Gomis on Thursday defended Al-Hilal’s Saudi defender Ali Al-Bulayhi following his altercation with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo on Monday during their Super Cup semifinal showdown.
The Portuguese international was sent off for elbowing Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s narrow 2-1 defeat.
Gomis, a former Al-Hilal player who turned out for the Riyadh giants between 2018 and 2022, said of his former teammate Al-Bulayhi on X: “An exemplary teammate, first come, last left from training. He gives everything for his country and for his club. Actually, he’s one of the best center-backs in the world and I know a few things from my experience. He is far from being a bad person!!!”

Currently playing for Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale, Gomis’ post has attracted more than 11,000 likes, 4,500 retweets and in excess of 1,500 replies.
One user posted a video of Al-Bulayhi and Gomis hugging, and wrote: “Two historic legends.”
Another user posted a video — which is believed to have been filmed when Gomis left Al-Hilal — of the two players saluting each other and a comment citing the Frenchman as saying “I love you, Bulayhi.”
A user called Yousef commented, saying: “Thank you Gomis for the unforgettable days!”
The Saudi Ministry of Sport denied rumors on Wednesday that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had held discussions with Ronaldo after his controversial sending off.


Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
Updated 10 April 2024
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Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers

Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema extend Eid Al-Fitr wishes to their followers
  • ‘Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,’ writes Ronaldo
  • Benzema says in a short video clip: ‘Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all’

RIYADH: Al-Nassr’s Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Ittihad’s French legend Karim Benzema took to X on Wednesday to wish their followers a happy Eid Al-Fitr.
The Saudi Pro League giants extended their best wishes to followers in Saudi Arabia and across the world on the evening of the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, a celebration that started on Wednesday and ends on Friday.
“Eid Mubarak! Wishing you all joy, peace and happiness on this special day,” wrote Ronaldo on X as he posted a picture of himself in a white top.
The Frenchman posted a short video clip of himself, saying: “Salam alaikum, Eid Mubarak to you all, and may Allah accept from us all.” He spoke partly in French and partly in Arabic.
Up until this article went up online, the Portuguese player’s post had garnered over 425,000 likes, 36,000 retweets and 9,700 replies.

A follower called Nungua wrote: “Happy Eid Mubarak, my goat. I love you.”
Yaseen said: “I love you.”
Sadaf, a female fan, wrote: “Wishing you a very happy Eid.”
A follower called Hsnain wrote: “Yes, much special day. Thank you. This means a lot from the man of millions.”
“Be blessed, and thank you so much for the kind words,” commented a user called Raisa, who added an Eid Mubarak image as well.
The Al-Ittihad striker’s post generated over 80,000 likes, 7,800 retweets and more than 1,600 replies

“Happy Eid, Karim. Get ready for the match against Al-Hilal,” said a follower called Ahmad on Benzema’s video.
Another follower said: “Eid Mubarak, brother.”
Abdol Mohsen wrote in Arabic: “May God accept from you and us!”
A user called Ali wrote: “The best person ever to wish us Eid Mubarak,” adding four white heart emojis.
A Benzema fan called Abu Zaid replied to the Frenchman’s post in French, saying: “Eid Mubarak, and every year get creative against your opponents.”


Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar

Saudi footballers target Olympic qualification at 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar
  • Saad Al-Shehri’s team beat South Korea in their final friendly before heading out to Doha on Thursday

ABU DHABI: Saudi Arabia’s U-23 national football team on Tuesday defeated South Korea 1-0 in their final friendly match before turning their attention to qualification for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

The match at Al-Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi concluded the squad’s preparation camp before the start of the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar, which will take place from April 15 to May 3, providing a pathway to the football competition at the Paris Olympics this summer.

Jihad Zakry scored the only goal for Saad Al-Shehri’s team in the 72nd minute of a match attended by Sultan Al-Anqari, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the UAE; Ibrahim Al-Kassim, secretary-general of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation; and Naeem Al-Bakr, board member at SAFF.

The Saudi squad is set to fly out to Doha on Thursday, before kicking off their Group C fixtures against Tajikistan on April 16 at Khalifa International Stadium.

The Green Falcons will then face Thailand (April 19) and Iraq (April 22) at the same venue.

The 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup sees 16 nations split into four groups of four teams, with the top two from each progressing to the quarterfinals.

The winners of the two semifinals will both secure automatic qualification to the Olympic Games regardless of which team wins the final.

The two losing semifinalists will contest the third place, with the winners also booking their spot in Paris, while the losers (fourth-place finishers) will have take part in a play-off against an African qualifier for one final chance at qualification.


Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo
Updated 10 April 2024
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Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

Saudi sports ministry denies communication between minister and Ronaldo

RIYADH: The Saudi Sports Ministry denied rumors that its minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki bin Faisal, had discussions with Al-Nassr’s Cristiano Ronaldo after his dismissal in a cup game on Monday.
Chatter circulated online that the minister talked to the Portuguese international about the quality of refereeing in the Saudi game.
A ministry source told Arab News: “There is no truth to  the rumors circulating about any contact between HRH the Minister of Sport and the Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo. What is being talked about in this regard is completely untrue.”
Ronaldo was sent off for elbowing Ali Al-Bulayhi during Al-Nassr’s 2-1 loss to Al-Hilal in the Saudi Super Cup semi-final.