LONDON: Saudi Arabia suffered its first sporting backlash since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi when seven countries suddenly pulled out of a new soccer bloc the Gulf kingdom was setting up.
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka all announced they were withdrawing from the 14-strong South West Asia Football Federation (SWAFF).
It happened on the eve of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress in Kuala Lumpur which had been expected to rubber stamp the new groups, with FIFA boss Gianni Infantino in attendance.
Instead it’s understood the countries will be complaining to FIFA about strong-arm tactics being used by the Saudi authorities to stop them leaving.
The news is the latest setback for Infantino, who was forced into a retreat last week when his plans for a new Saudi-sponsored £25bn Club World Cup were opposed by UEFA.
Moves by Saudi Arabia to set up SWAFF earlier this year had caused concern amongst the FIFA hierarchy because of the complex religious, political and cultural make-up of the region.
In all there 47 countries in the AFC, split up onto five regions.
The move to replace the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) with SWAFF was seen as a bid by Riyadh to increase its influence in the region and limit that of its rivals, mainly Qatar which is hosting the World Cup in 2022.
Excluded from SWAFF are Qatar, which has been the victim of a Saudi-led blockade for 18 months, and Jordan, which has refused to move the headquarters of WAFF to the Saudi capital from its own.
As an inducement to join, the Saudis promised every country $500,000 for signing up, but officials complained they were ambushed at a meeting in Jeddah.
One Indian official said no mention of a new federation was made until the gala meal: ‘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’.
The countries’ soccer bosses also complained of being bribed at the event with expensive watches.
One of the reasons being given for the sudden withdrawal is the news that current AFC president, Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, of Bahrain, is to be challenged for his job by the Saudi leader of SWAFF, Adel Ezzat, next year.
It’s claimed that countries who support his candidacy have been told by Al Khalifa that they can’t stay in a new grouping headed by his rival for the top job.
But the countries may have also been emboldened by calls for Saudi Arabia not to use sport to rebrand its image in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, called ‘sportwashing’.
Amnesty International has demanded the world’s top two tennis players, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, do not go ahead with an exhibition match in Saudi Arabia in December.
The human rights charity has also said the Italian Super Cup, between Juventus and AC Milan, should not go ahead in Riyadh in January.
News of the withdrawal came in a statement from the All Indian Football Federation, which said: ‘The South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) comprising Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan unanimously decided to pull out of the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) with immediate effect on Tuesday, October 30th 2018, in a meeting held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
‘The withdrawal precedes the expected official recognition of the AFC’s five Regional Federations by the AFC Congress on Wednesday, October 31st, 2018’.