For just the third time in the tournament’s existence, the FIFA World Cup is coming to Asia, with Saudi Arabia the only confirmed bidder for the 2034 tournament — marking what appears to be a shifting of international sporting and cultural power to the continent.
Asia had to wait 72 years for its first tournament, held in Japan and South Korea, and then a further 20 for its second. The region, and the Gulf in particular, will have to wait just 12 years for another tournament, after Qatar’s hosting of the event in 2022.
It is a sign of the growing power of Asia, and for Saudi Arabia, in the sphere of global football, it has come in an unexpected rush.
It was just 12 months ago that the Green Falcons, then a relatively unknown quantity on the global stage, were preparing for the most daunting of tasks by taking on Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the opening game.
As the Lusail Stadium’s golden facade shimmered on a typically warm and sunny Doha afternoon, the 80,000 fans inside the arena — evenly split between Argentinean and Saudi Arabian fans — created an atmosphere that had to be experienced to be believed.
The stadium’s foundations were truly tested as first Saleh Al-Shehri, and then Salem Al-Dawsari, produced a stunning one-two punch early in the second half to turn a 0-1 halftime deficit into a 2-1 lead — which they would not relinquish.
Saudi Arabia football was the talk of the world. Back then, even after the euphoric high of that historic victory, few would have believed the transformation that was still coming.
Herve Renard’s side not only opened the eyes of the world to the talent within the Kingdom, but also to the passion for football among Saudi Arabia’s 30-million-plus population, as convoys of fans came across the border to support their team.
The experience of that day will pale in comparison to that of hosting the tournament, and to that end the world is in for a remarkable experience when 2034 rolls around.
It will mean a great deal to Saudi Arabia and the region. It is also a momentous time for Arab football because Morocco co-hosts in 2030.
For all the doomsday predictions ahead of Qatar about a lack of football history and culture — untrue also of Saudi Arabia — those who were fortunate enough to spend time in Doha will talk of a unique and thoroughly enjoyable World Cup experience.
If the World Cup is about showcasing different and unique cultures, then Qatar 2022 certainly did that beautifully. This was a World Cup in the Arab world, by the Arab world.
Walking through Souq Waqif, or along the corniche with the glittering Doha skyline as the backdrop, everywhere you went were flags from all over the Arab world, with fans mingling and celebrating.
It broke down barriers and challenged perceptions. That will again be the case on the streets of Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam come 2034.
In fact, 2034 promises to be even bigger and better than Qatar, because by that stage the tournament will have expanded to 48 teams.
Whereas in Qatar nations including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and the UAE were all absent, with the extra slots available, all four nations would fancy their chances of qualifying.
For fans from the rest of Asia, they will get their first chance to have a glimpse of what a World Cup in the Kingdom will be like when Saudi Arabia hosts the 2027 AFC Asian Cup. Remarkably, for a nation that has had such success in the tournament — winning it three times — this will be their first time as hosts.
As Asia emerges from the ravages of COVID-19, there is an enormous opportunity to turbocharge the development of football within the region over the next decade.
As Saudi Arabia looks to play a more leading role in football affairs, both globally and within Asia, there is an opportunity for the continent to benefit from the huge investment that will be forthcoming — much like a rising tide lifts all boats.