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.”