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Club World Cup let visitors see how Saudi Arabia wants to change ahead of 2034 World Cup

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia –

In Saudi Arabia this week to work at the Club World Cup, seeing a woman driving a car on the busy roads of Jeddah was proving elusive.

The kingdom’s ban on women drivers was lifted in 2018 — a key modernizing reform in a long-time ultraconservative society — yet first-hand evidence was missing for nearly four full days at a soccer event that was an early milestone on the road to the men’s World Cup in 2034.

Spending one hour each day in taxis is easily done in a city with almost no public transport for more than five million people. A ride was requested on Thursday evening on a Middle East booking app to pick up at the five-star hotel where FIFA stayed.

The driver of the economy grade sedan that arrived was a woman in her 20s, wearing western clothes and her head uncovered. Her avatar on the Jeeny app was not a photograph but a purple and white image of a hijab head covering.

The skeptical bubble of a western visitor was popped and the frequent claims by Saudi and soccer officials of transformational change in the kingdom rang more true.

“We are living in an exciting journey,” Saudi Arabian Football Federation president Yasser al Misehal had told The Associated Press earlier Thursday. “We have great leadership, and the people — they want to change.”

The leader driving that change, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has put sports like soccer, golf and boxing at the heart of lavish plans for a post-oil economy known as Vision 2030. Critics say it is also sportswashing to soften an image damaged by the kingdom’s human rights record.

The crown prince has met so often with FIFA president Gianni Infantino starting in 2018 that Saudi Arabia’s emergence in October as the only candidate to host the 2034 World Cup was both a surprise and inevitable.

The surprise was in how soon the 2034 hosting process was started and all-but won, yet inevitable due to the two men’s obvious shared goals over the years.

Manchester City players, foreground, and Fluminense players enter the pitch for the Soccer Club World Cup final match between Manchester City FC and Fluminense FC at King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Dec. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

The brief Club World Cup that ended on Friday was awarded to Saudi Arabia in February and was the first FIFA event played in the kingdom since the 1990s.

It brought to Jeddah six continental champion teams, thousands of their fans, and hundreds of FIFA staffers and entourage. Also visiting were officials from about 150 of FIFA’s 211 member federations for a meeting of little business value beyond building ties with Saudi soccer that will only deepen in the next 11 years.

Among them was Football Australia, which wanted to bid for 2034. It opted not to, facing certain defeat and public pressure by Infantino and the Asian Football Confederation to stay united and not take the Saudi candidacy to a contested vote next year.

“I think that’s exciting,” Australian soccer CEO James Johnson told the AP about the Saudi spending spree this year on hiring players and coaches, plus sponsoring and bidding for international events. “When there’s content coming to the region, that’s good for all the AFC members and us being one of them.”

On the field in Jeddah, the symbolism of women’s greater social freedoms was clear though they still face male guardianship laws.

FIFA picked a woman, Tori Penso of the United States, to referee two of the seven men’s games including the opener featuring Saudi champion Al Ittihad.

The seven-team club tournament was a tentative step on the road to hosting 104 games — all set to be on Saudi territory, for now — at the world’s most watched sports event.

“All the people took care of us incredibly well in the hotel,” Pep Guardiola, coach of the winning team Manchester City, said in the early hours of Saturday, adding: “The pitch could be better.”

Guardiola and the coach of beaten finalist Fluminense, Fernando Diniz, were unhappy with the playing surface at King Abdullah Sports City, which will be a 2034 World Cup venue.

Attendances peaked at 56,000 to see Al Ittihad lose last week to Al Ahly from Cairo, a team well supported by the Egyptian community in Jeddah.

Crowds paying up to 75 Saudi riyals ($20) for the cheapest tickets included burka-wearing women who have been allowed to attend matches in the past five years.

Soccer’s place in Saudi public life could be seen on Wednesday in a public square in the old downtown neighbourhood Al Balad.

Hundreds of fans sat in lines of benches and folding chairs to watch a Saudi Arabia vs Yemen title game for West Asian junior championship on big screens put up by Club World Cup organizers.

When Yemen won a penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw the jubilant fans exited together singing through the streets.

“If you go around the streets you will see a lot of different people, different cultures that are all Saudis,” Al Misehal said.

In a nearby coffee house on Wednesday off Bazan Lane, Man City fan Darren Wright had “stumbled on to” the viewing screens with his friend Bob Jenkins, a fan of Scottish club Rangers.

A Club World Cup phone app to store digital match tickets had little detail about what else to do in Jeddah or how to get to the stadium north of the city beyond the airport.

“We haven’t been told anything, so just jump in a taxi,” said Wright, a military veteran and regular traveler to City games. “The people are friendly and the hospitality is good. I would come back here.”

One taxi driver the AP traveled with, a man from Pakistan who worked in Jeddah for more than a decade, said he had lived in bustling Al Balad until being given two weeks’ notice to vacate his rented apartment. Buildings there are being razed for “hotels, hotels,” he said.

Across Al Balad, buildings and construction sites are ringed by two-metre (-yard) high fences with screens in green Ministry of Culture livery.

The city is fast spreading north and the KASC complex opened in 2014 finally is getting neighbours with dozens of eight-storey apartment blocks creating the Al Arous district.

Like the massive expansion of Doha that was fueled by Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup, Saudi Arabian cities like Jeddah should look very different in the decade-plus of bidding for and staging games that lure hundreds of thousands of global fans.

Saudi Arabia’s rapid surge in soccer politics since an April 2019 nadir at AFC elections also is worth watching.

Al Misehal was elected by Asian voters in February to join FIFA’s 37-member ruling council and the AFC presidency is due vacant in 2027. FIFA should have an opening in 2031 when Infantino’s term limit will be reached after 15 years.

Asked about possible ambitions, Al Misehal told the AP “to be honest, it is too early.”

The pathway is clear, however, and Saudi soccer already is on a stunning trajectory.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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