A dimly-lit banquet hall of a hotel in Jeddah was an unlikely setting for a footballing rebellion. But last week, led by Saudi Arabia, office-bearers of 10 South and West Asian nations met in the port city, the outcome of which can potentially change the Asian football map. In a bid to strengthen their say in the continent’s football matters, Saudi Arabia have announced the formation of the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), claiming that 10 nations, including India, have agreed to be a part of it.
The move, seen as a consequence of the ongoing political tussle in the Gulf, has set the alarm bells ringing at the FIFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC), who are strongly opposed to the move. Here is what led to the creation of this new bloc, and its implications on Indian and Asian football, if it comes into force.
What is the new federation?
There are 47 nations in the AFC, split into five regions — South, South-East, East, West and Central. It’s primarily based on the continent’s geography. Saudi Arabia’s football federation has claimed that 10 countries — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE, Yemen — have come together to be a part of the South-West Asian federation. However, West Asian heavyweights like Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain have been excluded from SWAFF, giving an impression that this is a politically-motivated alliance.
What has led to the formation of SWAFF?
The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar is the key reason. This move is seen as another attempt to isolate Qatar and at the same time, undermine their growing influence in world football. Saudi Arabia’s frustration stems from the fact that even though they are a stronger footballing nation, underlined by their qualification for the World Cup, Qatar weilds solid influence off the field. Qatar has used football as a tool for diplomacy, an aspect where Saudi Arabia has lagged behind.
As a football official puts it, Saudi Arabia want to outplay Qatar in the off-the-field battle as well. The other trigger for the formation of SWAFF is Jordan football federation’s chief Prince Ali bin Hussein’s refusal to shift West Asian federation’s headquarters from Amman to Riyadh, as demanded by the Saudis. By basing the headquarters in their capital, Saudi Arabia hoped it would be a symbolic show of power. Middle-east football expert James Dorsey has pointed out that Jordan’s refusal to back the Qatar blockade could be another reason for them being left out.
Since the Qatar blockade is at the crux of the whole thing, have the footballing relations between these nations affected so far?
There were apprehensions initially since clubs from these countries play against each other on a home-and-away basis in the Champions League. The AFC swiftly intervened and ensured the political tussle does not spill on the football field. Last Monday, Qatari club Al Sadd traveled to Jeddah and played out a 2-2 against Saudi Arabian heavyweights Al Ahli in the Champions League. However, instead of travelling directly to each other’s countries, these teams have used Oman as a port of entry/exit. UAE will be hosting the Asian Cup next year and Qatar will be competing in the event despite the travel ban.
Can they form a new federation just like that?
No. For that, they will need a go-ahead from the AFC and FIFA.
How have the AFC and FIFA reacted?
Both are nervously following the developments since there are fears that the implications could be huge if this power struggle goes on. There are murmurs that the position of AFC’s Bahraini president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain could be compromised as SWAFF’s honourary president Turki Al Al-Sheikh, a Saudi sports czar who is close to the royal family, seeks influential positions in Asian and world football. Amidst all this, the AFC has shot off letters to all 10 countries who met in Jeddah, demanding to know their stand on the issue. It has put the nations on the back foot for the time being. Saudi Arabia had called for another meeting in the last week of May to prepare a formal proposal and present it to the AFC but that has been called off for now.
Why have the countries agreed to be a part of the new federation if it was so controversial?
Money seems to be the obvious reason. The Saudis have promised every country approximately Rs 3.5 crore each ($500,000) for joining the new federation. But an Indian official said they were blind-sided at the meeting. He said they were informed about the agenda of the meeting just 15 minutes before it was to begin and it had no mention of forming a new federation. “At the dinner, the president of the Saudi Arabia football federation gave a speech and at the end of it, all of us were handed a consent letter, which we were told to sign. We signed it, but with a caveat. We have said the final decision will be taken by our executive committee,” an All India Football Federation (AIFF) official said.
Where does India stand in all this?
Two officials of the AIFF — general secretary Kushal Das and senior vice-president Subrata Dutta — attended the meeting in Jeddah. It put the country in a bind since the Indian government has maintained a neutral position in the Gulf crisis.
That has reflected in India’s standing in the AFC as well, so much so that when the Gulf crisis broke out last year, AIFF president Praful Patel was appointed as the mediator between Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia and other countries from the region. Joining the SWAFF, however, can affect that image, something that has bothered the AFC as well. The AIFF has swiftly gone into damage-control mode, insisting they strictly follow the directives of the AFC.
Will India benefit by joining the Saudi-led faction?
The South Asian zone is considered to be the weakest in Asia. For India, the possibility of playing against the stronger West Asian nations regularly would be a huge bonus. The AIFF has also factored in the financial benefits, since Saudi Arabia has promised Rs 3.5 crore to founder members. For a federation that’s perennially cash-strapped, the money could come handy.
Is there any precedent to this?
After falling out most West Asian nations, Iran formed a Central Asian federation, collaborating with Afghanistan from South zone and the former Soviet countries. It was formed and approved by AFC exactly four years ago, just days before the 2014 World Cup kicked off. With another World Cup a few weeks away, Asia stares at another split, one with wider ramifications.