As Saudis wilt on field, kingdom pursues soccer power grab
MOSCOW (AP) The Saudis have ambitions to seize control over parts of international soccer. Losing 5-0 by Russia in the World Cup opener shows they might have bigger problems at home.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had to endure the humiliation in the stadium on Thursday, with Saudi Arabia's mauling in Moscow coming at the hands of a side just below the Saudis in the FIFA rankings.
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi studiously sidestepped a question about whether his federation had been distracted lately. But it has.
Just when the Saudis had a first World Cup appearance in 12 years to prepare for, the federation has been mounting a power grab of soccer far beyond the kingdom.
What appears the creation of just another bureaucratic institution within the sport could actually have wider ramifications. On its face, the establishment of the South West Asian Football Federation by the Saudis, including the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, to help to develop the game appears a benevolent undertaking, especially when the existing regional governing body is so vast.
''Football is about growth and if you don't grow economically, socially, technically, you will not be moving,'' Saudi federation president Adel Ezzat told The Associated Press. ''It's not enough for us to be in the World Cup.
''We have a vision that an Asian country will win the World Cup one day, but there must be a start for that. Football is underdeveloped in many areas in Asia.''
Is the Asian Football Confederation to blame?
''Ambitions have to be higher than winning the Asian Cup,'' Ezzat said.
Confederation president Sheikh Salman, a Bahraini, said he ''had no objection to the creation of SWAFF as long as it remains as a football body outside of the AFC's zonal structure.''
Scratch deeper below the surface and the true objectives of the new body seem a little cloudy. It is unclear why SWAFF is required when there are already regional offshoots of the AFC, including the West Asian Football Federation, which is led by Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein who resisted an attempt by the Saudis to seize power of his organization before the new regional force emerged.
''It will help Asia and it will help FIFA,'' Ezzat told The Associated Press. ''We don't see anything wrong creating that connection between the south and the west. Football needs to grow.''
Ezzat maintained that SWAFF had followed the right legal steps to avoid breaching the rules of world football's governing body. Ezzat said FIFA governance committee head Mukul Mudgal had been dispatched by FIFA President Gianni Infantino to the SWAFF meeting on May 31 in Jeddah. The Indian judge denied he was in attendance.
SWAFF said the founding members also include Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Maldives, Yemen, Oman and Kuwait. Oman Football Association General Secretary Said Othman Al Bulushi told the AP his nation was waiting to assess the statutes and legality of the body within FIFA before confirming its membership.
''It's not about the geographic map,'' Saudi federation president Adel Ezzat said. ''It's about zones.''
Could it also be about politics?
For three years, a Saudi-led coalition has been trying to drive out Iranian-aligned Shiite rebels known as Houthis from Yemen to break the civil war in the Arab world's poorest nation and restore the exiled government.
Across the Gulf, the Saudis are part of a quartet, including the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, which has spent the last year putting the squeeze on Qatar. Diplomatic ties with the energy-rich country have been severed amid allegations that Qatar supports extremist groups in the region, which Doha denies.
The Qataris, though, have plowed ahead with preparations to host an event that will put them at the center of the world's attention: the next World Cup in 2022.
Ezzat won't discuss Qatar, or the 2022 World Cup. Turki Al-Sheikh, head of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority, has been less circumspect, demanding earlier this year that Qatar be stripped of the hosting rights if corruption around its bid was proven.
For now, in Saudi sights is Qatar's flagship sports network, which owns exclusive Middle East and North African rights to the World Cup. The BeIN Sports coverage of the Russia World Cup opener was watched across Saudi Arabia - but on a pirate channel. The beoutQ signal is transmitted by a Riyadh-based satellite provider, whose largest shareholder is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Still, the BeIN coverage was seized on by Al-Sheikh to threaten legal action against the network for ''wrongdoings against KSA, its sports and officials, and for exploiting sports to achieve political goals.'' In a tweet, Al-Sheikh added Friday that this ''proves Saudi authorities' true stance when banning this network from airing on its soil.''
Soccer's world body, though, is finally intervening.
FIFA said it is ''exploring all options to stop the infringement of its rights, including in relation to action against legitimate organizations that are seen to support such illegal activities.''
What FIFA would not say is whether Infantino raised Qatar's concerns when he watched the opener in the Luzhniki Stadium alongside the Saudi crown prince.
Infantino has been a keen visitor to Saudi Arabia over the last year, including meeting King Salman, as intrigue has swirled about the country's role in a consortium's plans to underwrite $25 billion to launch a vastly expanded Club World Cup and an international Nations League.
''He knows for a fact the importance of Saudi Arabia in the region,'' Ezzat said. ''That's why I believe he is paying a lot of attention to Saudi Arabia. ... That's a very important sign. (FIFA) know this country can play a very important role in the development of football.''
Infantino, though, said he believed the backing for the new competitions was ''not part of a wider Saudi sports grab.'' The proposals have stalled because of opposition within the council to Infantino's secrecy over the financial backers.
Growing football is part of a sweeping ''Vision 2030'' plan to wean Saudi Arabia off its near-total dependence on oil money. Prince Mohammed is trying to push Saudi Arabia to become a more cosmopolitan nation that appeals to international investors.
Ezzat wants to create new soccer competitions under the auspices of SWAFF and invite countries to participate from beyond the region - particularly Europe.
''The country is going through an important change,'' Ezzat said. ''Football can be a catalyst for change. The FIFA president I'm sure knows this very well. ... My country can play an important role in football.''
Just not the Saudi national team at the moment.
Rob Harris is at https://twitter.com/RobHarris and https://facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
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