Published by: Arab News:
Sometimes what happens off the pitch can be as fascinating as what happens on it, and that is especially the case with Asia playing an increasingly important role in the world of football. As soon as the World Cup finishes in Qatar, there will be a short break and then thoughts will turn to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup that will be held in the same country, having beaten off competition from South Korea and Indonesia to be named as the host of the continent’s biggest tournament after China gave up their staging rights in May due to Beijing’s zero COVID-19 policy.
The decision, taken by a vote of the Asian Football Confederation’s executive committee in Kuala Lumpur, has had a number of consequences.
For Saudi Arabia, it means that the road to hosting the 2027 event has become a little smoother. The race started with five runners, with interest from Jordan and Iraq never making it into concrete bids. In December 2020, Uzbekistan dropped out to leave four that went all the way. Well, almost. Last week Iran, beset by protests and problems at home, withdrew. Now Qatar, seen as Riyadh’s main rival for the tournament, have moved forward four years. It means that 2027 will be held in either Saudi Arabia or India.
“Again, we thank our three member associations — the All India Football Federation, the Qatar Football Association and the Saudi Arabian Football Federation — for submitting strong bids to host the AFC Asian Cup 2027,” AFC President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa said. “We must also acknowledge the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran and the Uzbekistan Football Association for signalling their intent to host the 2027 edition .”
Qatar’s success in being named as host of 2023, which is likely to be held in January 2024, did not go down well in Seoul. The Korean Football Association took the unusual step of releasing a statement expressing that feeling.
“It has not been held in Korea, an Asian football powerhouse, for 63 years, and in terms of rotation and regional balance, it was a reasonable order to hold it in East Asia,” the KFA said.
“Unexpectedly, however, we had to face tough competition as Qatar jumped into the bid with its abundant financial, human and material base.” It added: “It is judged that the unconventional offensive and support of Middle Eastern countries trying to take the lead in Asian football also influenced the situation.”
Many neutrals felt that after the UAE hosting in 2019 and Qatar doing so as recently as 2011, the continent’s biggest event should have been held in the East, for what would have been only the second time since 1996.
South Korea, who have not hosted since 1960, are entitled to feel a little annoyed, especially as they worked hard, encouraged by the AFC, in the summer to try and step in for the Chinese. There is a case to be made for the East getting the nod.
Qatar could point out, however, that the 2023 tournament had, in fact, been handed to East Asia, but just a year before it was all due to kick off the region’s biggest country decided not to go ahead. The 2022 World Cup hosts have all the facilities in place and have established themselves as a very safe pair of hands in terms of hosting AFC tournaments during the global pandemic. From the viewpoint of the confederation, who got their fingers burned with China’s withdrawal and had all kinds of headaches and financial issues in trying to organise events in recent years, Qatar is the easy, safe and lucrative option.
With the 2023 battle now over, the 2027 race is entering its final stages with India and Saudi Arabia left. There is a certainty when it comes to the decision day at least. The AFC’s executive committee will vote in February to select the host. Neither country has hosted before. India is an important market for the AFC and for FIFA and nobody in Riyadh will be getting ahead of themselves. At the moment in Asian football circles, however, Saudi Arabia is regarded as the favourite.
“Our chances of hosting the 2027 Asian Cup are good because we have had generous support from the Minister of Sports Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal and his team. Our bid and documentation are complete and we are optimistic that we can host the 2027 tournament,” said Yasser Al-Mishal, president of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation on national television earlier this week.
For the past 20 years, East Asia has had the upper hand on the pitch with the 2002 World Cup and with South Korea and Japan having subsequent success on the global stage and sending players to Europe’s big leagues. The arrival of the Chinese Super League as a major player added to that power. Now, though, Asian champions at both club and national team levels are from the west and that is also where more and more of the biggest events in sport are taking place.