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Anthony Harwood

Saudi Arabia plays dirty but cries foul anyway

Qatar was not invited to join Saudi Arabia's South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 June, 2018

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Comment: At its first World Cup match, Saudi Arabia complained of mixing politics with sport, but SWAFF, its new footballing federation, is guilty of just that, writes Anthony Harwood.
There's a stench of hypocrisy about the way Saudi Arabia has complained to FIFA about Qatar's 'politicisation' of the World Cup.

Riyadh's anger stemmed from the gleeful commentary on beIN Sports as the Green Falcons were on the receiving end of a 5-0 drubbing by hosts, Russia, in the opening match of the tournament.

Technically, the Doha-based beIN pundits probably were in breach of oft-broken FIFA rules aimed at keeping politics out of football.

In a cheeky reference to the recent arrest of Saudi dignitaries in a corruption inquiry, one joked: "We could see these players, technical staff and Turki al-Sheikh (Sports minister) soon imprisoned at the Ritz Carlton similar to the royals."

Another said: "I would propose an overhaul of all the officials involved with the Saudi football federation, including the supervisory authority."

This is most likely the remark that set al-Sheikh scurrying off to FIFA crying: 'Foul'. He after all is head of the Saudi Football Federation.

"We can summarise what happened today as a major disgrace," the beIN pundits concluded, rubbing yet more salt into the wound.

It would appear that al-Sheikh wholly agreed with what they said. Immediately after the team's humiliation - witnessed in person by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, no less - he accused the players of not even exerting "five per cent of the effort needed".

It is true that under FIFA rules commentators are not allowed to make political points, nor are the players. It's why British teams have ludicrously been fined thousands for wearing poppies on their shirts.

Under FIFA rules commentators are not allowed to make political points, nor are the players

And commentators do sometimes come in for criticism, as we saw this weekend when the BBC pundit and former Liverpool player Danny Murphy was accused of being biased because he spoke of the England team as 'we', while reporting for a UK audience.

You could also point out that Qatar has been subjected to a draconian diplomatic and transport blockade by a Saudi-led alliance for more than a year now.

So the beIN pundits have a major axe to grind and were just scoring points, political or otherwise, when they made the remarks, right?

Wrong.

For that match the presenter and all three pundits were either Tunisian or Moroccan. None were from the Gulf.

And they are very sore at Saudi Arabia's backing for the United States - not a fellow Arab country, Morocco - in the battle to host the 2026 World Cup.

Jamal Steify, who is Moroccan, quipped: "It seems like the Saudi officials were too busy supporting the US, Canada and Mexico 2026 World Cup bid at the expense of preparing the environment and atmosphere required to support the national team."

These types of pundits are laddish entertainers, having a bit of a laugh. They are not seasoned politicians.

By running off to FIFA the Saudis have just shown they are sore losers.

There is, however, a more serious point to be made, which is the extent to which Saudi Arabia is trying to use football for its own political ends.

Turki al-Sheikh and his friends are at present busy trying to set up something called the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF).

It has been announced: "The Riyadh government will 'help grow and resource' soccer programmes in the region, working with each member country to establish commercial initiatives and build new facilities, academies and competitions."

The list of countries invited to join SWAFF stretches far and wide across the region: Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Maldives, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

But, funnily enough, not Qatar.

The Bangladeshi soccer president, Kazi Salahuddin, who went to a meeting in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, said all flights and accommodation were paid for by the hosts.

Delegates were also offered free watches, potentially in breach of ethics regulations.

By running off to FIFA the Saudis have just shown they are sore losers

Knowing - as we do - how federations get together before things like World Cup votes to decide on the party line, can you ever imagine SWAFF voting for Qatar in a future poll?

Of course not. Instead, countries with struggling economies, like Nepal and Bangladesh, will be strong-armed into voting for Saudi Arabia.

So who now is politicising sport?

Notice too, how FIFA is planning to re-vamp the Club World Cup with £25bn worth of investment, it is said, from Saudi Arabia and Japan.

Discussion of this had to be taken off the agenda at the recent FIFA Congress in Russia, after UEFA objected to the proposals due to the lack of transparency about where the funding was coming from.

Should FIFA ever get round the table and agree the way forward first, the new Club World Cup is pencilled in for 2021 - possibly in Saudi Arabia.

That would be the year before Qatar hosts the 2022 World Cup.

Could Saudi Arabia maybe, just maybe, be trying to steal Qatar's thunder by hosting a huge £25 billion tournament with the best soccer clubs in the world, a year before the next World Cup kicks off in Doha?

Every time Turki Al-Sheik opens his mouth - or takes to his Twitter feed  - he politicises sport.

Last week it was the head of UEFA who he accused of being "a man of many faces" when Europe's soccer governing body called out Saudi Arabia's continual piracy of sports broadcasts which another country, yes Qatar, has paid the rights for.

When al-Sheikh boasted that he had refused to meet him, the UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin gave the perfect reply when he said: "I've never heard of this person and so would have no reason to meet him."

At least he's got the measure of the man, who only last December was playing politics with a different game, Chess, when he refused to let the Qatari team fly their national flag at the World Rapid and Blitz Tournament being hosted in Riyadh.

In his speech to the audience he belittled Qatar at every turn, calling it a "mini-state" with its "silly allegations".

And when asked in a television interview, just days before this month's vote, whether Saudi Arabia would support the American-led bid for the 2026 World Cup or Morocco, al-Sheikh replied: "US, US, US, US, US, US, US US..."

Saudi Arabia is trying to use football for its own political ends

Be in no doubt how much Saudi Arabia is mixing sport and politics for its own ends.

My response to its accusation that a few soccer pundits are guilty of the 'politicisation' of the World Cup? Pass the sick bucket.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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