Win or lose, Club World Cup final a sign of Saudi progress
Regardless of whether Al-Hilal can beat Real Madrid in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup on Saturday and become the first Asian team to win the title, these are jubilant times for sport in Saudi Arabia.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled Vision 2030, a project which aims to diversify an economy dependent on oil. Government figures have noted that sports and entertainment industries play a central role in the vision.
Al-Hilal beat South American champion Flamengo of Brazil 3-2 in the semifinals of the Club World Cup earlier this week in Morocco, already a famous victory for the team from Riyadh.
“Flamengo was surprised by the skill of our players,” Al-Hilal coach Ramon Diaz said. “They did not expect us to play in such an excellent way. We dominated the match, and we deserved to win and go to the final.”
Salem Al-Dawsari scored twice against the team from Brazil.
“We deserved to go to the final and we promise that we will try and bring the trophy to Saudi Arabia,” the winger said. “We did not come to Morocco just to participate. We came to play in our name and the name of Saudi Arabia.”
It was not the first time that Al-Dawsari has made international headlines. He scored the winning goal as Saudi Arabia rallied for a 2-1 comeback win over Argentina in the group stage of last year’s World Cup in Qatar, a victory that shocked the world and stunned the eventual champion.
Back in Riyadh on Thursday, Cristiano Ronaldo thrilled a sell-out crowd by scoring four goals in Al-Nassr’s 4-0 win over Al-Wehda in the Saudi Professional League. The Portuguese star was released from his contract by Manchester United in November and signed a deal with Al-Nassr, reportedly worth up to $200 million a year, the following month.
The five-time Ballon D’Or winner has lifted the international profile of the Saudi Professional League, which has signed a deal with IMG to sell broadcasting rights of its games overseas. According to reports, deals have been agreed with 36 territories.
Staging major events makes up another strand of the country’s strategy to develop its sporting industry. On Feb. 1, Saudi Arabia was confirmed as host for the 2027 Asian Cup, the continent’s biggest soccer tournament that is held every four years.
“The kingdom is transforming before our eyes and we are filled with excitement for what it will look like in 2027,” Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal said.
There have been reports that Saudi Arabia, which has faced criticized for its human rights record and accusations of so-called “sportswashing” to improve its reputation, will bid to co-host the 2030 World Cup.
The country stages other international sports such as Formula One and is behind high-profile golf and boxing promotions and there are also bigger events on the agenda. Last August, Al-Faisal expressed interest in the 2034 Asian Games as well as the Olympics.
“Definitely, the Olympics would be an ultimate goal for us … we’re open to that and I think we can,” Al-Faisal said.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports