Ambassador of Euro 2024 and German Football legend Philip Lahm, who was once described by Spanish coach Pep Guardiola as “perhaps the most intelligent player’’ he had coached, wrote an article in The Guardian this week explaining why Saudi Arabia should not host the 2034 World Cup. He had published a similar column on Qatar 2022. It seems that Lahm is unable take the a more informed perspective on football in the Middle East. https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2023/dec/10/saudi-arabia-lacks-community-and-political-dignity-to-be-a-global-football-hub?CMP=share_btn_link
It would have been nice if Mr Lahm had done some research into the history of Saudi football before he wrote his think piece, because then he would know that my local football club, Al Ittihad, was founded in 1927 and has been a focal point for the population of Jeddah, especially the working class, throughout its history. The other major club of Jeddah, Al Ahli, was founded in 1937, and the people of my city are either Ittihadis or Ahlawis – those are our identities.
Sadly, since he is evidently unaware of Saudi football culture, Mr Lahm has adopted the patronising standpoint that Saudi football is new, undeveloped, and directed from the top – and thus we do not deserve to host a World Cup.
The Saudi Pro League, then consisting of eight teams was established in 1976, with the help of British football guru Jimmy Hill. Following several mergers, since 1994 the league has been all professional, with 16 clubs representing the Kingdom’s regions. There currently are eleven stadiums with capacities from 20,000 to 68,000. By 2027, when Saudi Arabia hosts the AFC Asian Cup, three new stadiums will be built and three upgraded significantly, making it eleven stadiums with capacities from 25,000 to 92,000.
The Saudi National team, nicknamed the Green Falcons, has competed in six FIFA World Cups, starting in 1994. They have won the Asian Cup three times and hold the record with six finals, making them one of the most successful national teams of the continent. At club level, Al Hilal and Al-Ittihad have each won the AFC Champions League titles twice. The Saudi Women’s Professional League was established in 2020, with only Saudi players, made up of 24 teams from all regions.
It is fair to call Saudis football junkies. Boys have always played the game, first on empty patches of sand, but now there are plenty of decent pitches. The wedding of one of my friends was delayed for a few hours because the bridegroom’s team was in a match that went to extra time, and he could not be moved from the TV. My father used to hide in his office after our team’s important games, especially after the Jeddah derby between Al Ittihad and Al Ahli. Today he claims he is not interested at all, but actually knows every detail about Saudi football. Women are no different in their passion for the game. Most learnt from male relatives, but some developed the passion by themselves and are today the future of Saudi women’s football.
Is Saudi Arabia a qualified host for the world cup?
For sure, passion for a sport is not the only determining factor to hosting a major international event. Everyone knows that a World Cup requires adequate infrastructure such as stadiums, transportation, and, most importantly, organisation skills. On this front, Saudi Arabia can claim qualifications that are second to none. After all, the annual Hajj pilgrimage attracts millions of people, who must be housed, transported, and cared for. In 2019 there were 2.5 million participants from all over the world, over a three-day period, in one location. By comparison, the last five World Cups have attracted between 3 to 3.5 million attendees, in 8 to 12 locations, over thirty days. Saudi Arabia is ready and eager to be the host. It is also important that there will be dress rehearsal, in the form of the AFC Asian Cup, which Saudi Arabia will host in 207.
What could be the reasons for Saudi Arabia to host such an event?
Sport, next to tourism and entertainment, is a key goal of Vision 2030. The World Cup combines all three factors. Saudis, who are known for their hospitality, will be eager to welcome visitors from all over the World. It will be a great opportunity to showcase the country, and not just the main destinations like Riyadh and Jeddah, but also less visited regions.
In today’s world, word-of-mouth is a potent marketing tool. Saudi Arabia is investing significantly in nurturing sporting talent, and as a result, children born today may grow up seeing Saudi Arabia as a hub for the world’s best talent. If their idols, like Neymar, endorse Saudi Arabia, millions of followers are likely to agree with their assessment.
But most of all, it will be fun.