The 2023 FIFA Club World Cup is going to be historic for a number of reasons. It will be the first for a while that the tournament will actually take place in the same year as signified in its title and, more importantly, the first time ever it will take place in Saudi Arabia.
FIFA made the announcement on Tuesday after a meeting of its council, and for fans in the country it means at least that there is going to be another Roshn Saudi League team in the competition yet again.
The latest news came just 72 hours after Al-Hilal reached the final of the 2022 edition, losing a thrilling clash to Real Madrid 5-3 in front of an appreciative crowd in Morocco. It came at the end of an exciting tournament in which the Riyadh giants defeated the champions of Africa, Wydad AC, and South America, Flamengo, on their way to the big game against the European powerhouse.
The announcement also comes after the national team impressed at the World Cup with that famous win against Argentina. And while the triumph of the under-23 team at the Asian championships last year did not make the same number of headlines, it was important nevertheless. Add the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Al-Nassr then it has been a successful few months for football in Saudi Arabia.
Off the pitch, this is also another feather in the cap. Earlier this month, the Asian Football Confederation voted to give Saudi Arabia the 2027 Asian Cup. It will mark the first time that the continent’s quadrennial tournament — and its biggest — will take place in the country. There is going to be plenty of international football for fans to enjoy in the coming months and years.
This is partly a recognition of the work that Saudi Arabia put in during the global pandemic. In 2020, with COVID-19 spreading all around the continent bringing travel restrictions, lockdowns and huge strains on health services, it was not a surprise that competitions such as the AFC Champions League and qualifiers for various national team competitions found it difficult to play games. Saudi Arabia stepped in on several occasions to host games in secure bubbles and did so safely, efficiently and quickly.
Cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam have become tried and trusted go-to venues for the Asian Football Confederation. The AFC is keen to ensure that there are no major surprises going forward especially after China said in 2022 that it would be unable to host the 2023 tournament. It is not a surprise that FIFA have decided to do the same.
This year’s Club World Cup, due to take place in December, is, assuming that all goes to schedule, going to be the last before FIFA’s long-planned expansion goes ahead. It means that this is going to be the last time that only the champions of each confederation as well as a team that represents the host nation play in a tournament that lasts not much more than a week.
Al-Hilal got to the 2022 final playing just two games, the road to the trophy in the future is going to be a lot longer.
FIFA boss Gianni Infantino announced that the new-look competition is set to take place in the summer of 2025 which means that this December’s event will be the last to take place in winter. It goes without saying that, assuming that all goes smoothly later this year, that Saudi Arabia will be the frontrunner to stage the 32-team tournament when it all happens.
The governing body hopes this expanded event will go on to become a weighty part of the football calendar, not comparable to the traditional World Cup in terms of importance and prestige but one that is seen as a big deal all around the world. At the moment, the Europeans can be lukewarm about jetting off overseas in the middle of their domestic seasons yet they almost always win. They will have more teams than anyone else, with Infantino saying that the new format will be made up of 12 from Europe, six from South America, one from Oceania, one from the host country and four each from Asia, Africa and the CONCACAF region.
With many more European teams in the mix, some are going to end up losing games to opposition from elsewhere in the world. This is what the tournament needs if it is going to grow. It may well be that when the big teams from England, Italy, Spain and elsewhere (it remains to be seen how the slots will be allocated) start to lose to opposition from Africa or Asia then their attitudes to the competition will start to change. They will also bring their traditional rivalries. The prospect of Barcelona meeting Real Madrid or Liverpool taking on Manchester United on the global stage is an enticing one. Not just that but fans could witness Cairo rivals Al-Ahly meeting Zamalek or even Al-Hilal going toe to toe with Al-Ittihad or Al-Nassr or a showdown between teams from Argentina and Brazil.
There are still questions to be answered when it comes to the future of FIFA’s Club World Cup and some of those will be answered in Saudi Arabia in December. It is going to be the end of an era for a version of the competition but perhaps the start of something new and something much bigger for the tournament and Saudi Arabia.