No country wants to embarrass itself on the world stage, but for Saudi Arabia and their team in Russia for the 2018 World Cup there’s an added significance to their performances. This is a nation that has banked a lot on football to improve its global image, after all. They have used the sport as a way to boost their political standing.
So the 5-0 humiliation to hosts Russia, another nation hoping to use the World Cup for political gain, didn’t quite fit in with the Saudi agenda. In fact, so damaging was the defeat, the country’s football federation chief Adel Ezzat made remarks that struck a concerning chord, given that capital punishment is still practiced in Saudi Arabia.
“We are very disappointed by the defeat,” Ezzat was quoted as saying. “This result is totally unsatisfactory, because it does not reflect the true level of our preparedness. Several players will face a penalty – goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf, striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi and defender Omar Hawsawi.”
Saudi Arabia is also considering legal action against Qatar-funded broadcaster beIN sports for what they see as the politicisation of their coverage of the 2018 World Cup. The Gulf state has already taken action in banning the network, but now it has cited various political comments made in beIN sport’s commentary from the tournament in Russia.
King Salman views football as a diplomatic tool to boost Saudi Arabia’s standing in a geo-political sense. In particular, it has been used to improve relations with neighbouring Iraq, with the two nations facing each other in a match for the first time since 1990 earlier this year. King Salman even offered to build a giant 135,000-capacity stadium in Baghdad.
Cynics claim Saudi Arabia only has self-interest at heart when using football in such a way. They certainly aren’t the only Gulf state to look at sport in general as a geo-political tool. United Arab Emirates, for instance, have made Abu Dhabi and Dubai a sporting destination, most notably for tennis, golf and motorsports. The state’s ruling family also owns Manchester City through Sheikh Mansour. Qatar’s footballing card was also marked with the infamous award of the 2022 World Cup and the their takeover of Paris Saint-Germain in 2011.
Tensions between the Gulf nations have hit new heights over the past year or so, with a trade embargo in place as the pro-Saudi states in the region, most notably Bahrain, UAE and Egypt, imposing a controversial blockade on Qatar. The tentacles of this political crisis has touched football, with Qatar recently accusing Saudi Arabia of illegally bootlegging the state-owned beIN sports to broadcast World Cup, Champions League and Premier League games.
Just last week, Saudi Arabia secured a symbolic win when the North American bid for the 2026 World Cup was picked over Morocco’s bid, which had been backed by Qatar. The Saudis created a voting bloc to ensure Canada, Mexico and the United States came out on top in the vote, with their efforts to hasten the expansion of the World Cup to include the 2022 tournament also successful.
But all this use of football as geo-political leverage will be set back if Saudi Arabia return home from Russia with their tail between their legs. Next up for Juan Antonio Pizzi and his players is a clash against Uruguay on Wednesday and the team that takes to the pitch in Rostov-on-Don will be extremely wary of the significance placed on their performance.
Against Russia, the Saudis looked extremely vulnerable, particularly in defence. The 5-0 scoreline didn’t flatter the hosts, who are the lowest ranked side at this World Cup. Uruguay, with their frontline of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez, and Egypt with a fully fit Mohamed Salah in their side, could cause even more damage. Saudi Arabia will likely suffer three defeats at the 2018 World Cup, but the manner of those defeats will matter.
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