Sportswashing? Saudi Arabia football chief insists ambitions have domestic focus, ‘key role’ for women
- Accusations of sportswashing rejected by Yasser Al Misehal, who says ‘all of our work is focused within Saudi Arabia’
- Alongside huge investments in LIV Golf and Newcastle United are major drives to boost participation and develop women’s football, he says
Saudi Arabia has spent the past year or more making a significant impact on the sporting world. From football to golf, boxing to Formula One, and being announced as the host for the Asian Winter Games in 2029, the desert kingdom’s influence is growing.
“We’re passionate about sport and working hard to inspire our people to lead healthier lives,” SAFF president Yasser Al Misehal said. “We know the work we and other sports bodies are doing and how focused we are about driving sport forward.
“I can’t be responsible for what others think of us; I just know that all of our work is focused within Saudi Arabia.”
Weeks before the men’s World Cup kicked off, the Saudi Arabia women’s team played their first international, a 3-3 draw with Bhutan.
The 48-year-old’s 2019 appointment coincided with the creation of a unit to develop women’s football, since when senior divisions have taken root with over 600 players across 24 teams, along with a girls’ schools league with 50,000 players.
“Women’s and girls’ sports participation is up 150 per cent in the last few years, so it’s perfectly natural for us to be working hard to engage them,” he said.
“We have a department dedicated to giving every woman and every girl in our kingdom the opportunity to play, follow and attend football and share in the joy the sport provides.”
Al Misehal said women were “playing a key role in our sports transformation” and rejected the suggestion that this would be prevented by the restraints of Saudi Arabian society on women’s lives. He cited more than 90 new women referees and over 100 coaches.
“Women have always played football in Saudi Arabia and amateur leagues began as far back as 2008,” he said.
He believes the impact of having the World Cup on his country’s doorstep “will last for generations” and said bidding for the AFC Asian Cup in 2027, and hosting events such as Anthony Joshua’s heavyweight bout with Andy Ruiz, were about inspiring participation domestically.
Two Joshua fights reportedly increased the number of people taking up boxing in Saudi Arabia by 300 per cent, and the federation president said his organisation “wanted the same in football”.
However, Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, and Saudi Arabia’s investment in the English Premier League and involvement in the schism in golf, highlight the impossibility of separating sport and politics.
Asked about accusations of “sportswashing” his country’s image, Al Misehal argued that, given the sums needed to host major tournaments, it is “understandable that governments are increasingly involved”.
“There seems to be a debate about the merits of hosts of all international sports events these days,” he said. “All I know is that for Saudi Arabia, sport is a key element of our efforts to encourage our people to lead happy and healthy lives.
“We’re very clear as to why Saudi Arabia is investing in sport. We’re proud of the impact we’re having. And if we can win a few more football matches like our victory over Argentina, that’s an added bonus.”