MENA Sports Wrap: Morocco celebrates World Cup hosting win, while Saudi eyes 2034 tournament

MENA Sports Wrap: Morocco celebrates World Cup hosting win, while Saudi eyes 2034 tournament
Two more Arab countries look set to host the World Cup, with Morocco winning a joint bid for 2030.
5 min read
06 October, 2023
Two Arab countries could host consequative World Cups [Getty]

World Cup fever has gripped the Arab world this week as Morocco won a bid to co-host the 2030 tournament, and Saudi Arabia announced itself a candidate for the 2034 tournament.

Meanwhile, the world's most expensive footballer - Neymar - scored his first goal in the Saudi Pro League, another boon for the kingdom.

Six time's a charm for Morocco

Morocco has won the hosting rights for the 2030 World Cup with huge elation in the football-mad country following a decades-long campaign to host the tournament.

FIFA, the sport’s governing body, announced on Wednesday that Morocco will co-host the tournament alongside the Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal.

Opening matches will be held in Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay respectively, to mark the 100th anniversary of the competition.

This will mark the first time a World Cup tournament will be hosted across three different continents. It will also be the second tournament to take place on the African continent and the MENA region, with South Africa hosting in 2010 and Qatar last year, respectively.

The announcement came as a surprise as FIFA was due to announce the 2030 hosts next year but with Morocco, Spain and Portugal the only candidates for the tournament it appears the sporting body wanted to give them a head start in preparing for the World Cup.

The move proves particularly special for Morocco, who has previously submitted five failed bids - 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010, and 2026 - with the sixth bid finally successful.

Expectations were high for 2010 as FIFA limited the candidates to the African continent, yet South Africa emerged as the host nation that year, much to the chagrin of Moroccans.

Wednesday's announcement will undoubtedly lift the spirits of the country, following the devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake which killed close to 3,000 people one month ago.

Hosting this major sporting event will also boost the country’s economy, currently strained due to high levels of inflation and climate-related challenges.

According to Moroccan media, the country will host matches in Casablanca,  Rabat, Tangier, Fes, Agadir and Marrakech, with the new stadium in Casablanca - Morocco’s economic capital - due to be completed in 2025.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said the three countries' hosting of the tournament sends a "great message of peace, tolerance and inclusion".

"Two continents - Africa and Europe - united not only in a celebration of football but also in providing unique social and cultural cohesion," he added.

The Moroccan monarch, King Mohammed VI, expressed his gratitude for the decision via an official statement, saying that the decision acknowledges Morocco’s rising position in the world of football.

Saudi Arabia wants to host the 2034 World Cup 

Saudi Arabia is preparing its bid to host the 2034 World Cup, which it promises will be a "world-class tournament".

Riyadh is so far the only candidate for the World Cup, with bids from Australia and New Zealand, and possibly South East Asia, also on the cards.

Saudi Arabia has recently spent billions developing its sports industry, with Formula 1 and other major competitions being hosted by the kingdom.

It recently made a foray into football by using its sovereign wealth fund - the Public Investment Fund - to finance leading Saudi clubs to attract big names such as Neymar, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo.

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Although this trend only began in December 2022, football fever has gripped Saudi Arabia with sold-out stadiums and massive TV coverage. Critics have claimed this is part of an attempt by the government at "sportswashing" to cover it the detention of activists and other human rights abuses. 

Saudi Arabia was also boosted by its historic win over Argentina in the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Where's Messi? Well, he didn't make the move to the Saudi Pro League, and will be too old to compete in the 2034 tournament, but we might expect to see him in the stands in Riyadh for Argentina games, or perhaps, even, as coach of their national team.

Neymar bags first Saudi Pro League goal

Still, in Saudi Arabia, Brazilian footballer Neymar finally scored his much-awaited first goal for Al-Hilal, following the Saudi team’s victory over Iranian side Nassaji Mazandaran in an Asian Champions League match on Tuesday.

Neymar scored a cracking goal in the 58th minute of the game, following a goal by teammate Aleksander Mitrovic. Al-Hilal went on to win the match 3-0, which was played in Tehran's Azadi Stadium.

The team’s match placed them at the top of Group D as Al-Hilal competes alongside some of Asia’s best football teams for the prestigious Asian Champions League crown.

The Brazilian superstar’s first goal for Al-Hilal had been highly anticipated as Neymar is his country’s top-scorer of all time and one of the most prolific players of his generation.

An injury, however, kept the Brazilian benched at the beginning of Al-Hilal’s Saudi Pro League campaign, much to the fans' disappointed.

He eventually made his debut on September 15 in a match against Al-Riyadh, with Al-Hilal thumping their city rivals 6-1.

Neymar had already fumbled his first chance to score after a penalty was rewarded to Public Investment Fund-owned Al-Hilal last Friday during a match against Al-Shabab. Unfortunately for the Brazilian, he missed the back of the net.

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Neymar, who signed from Paris Saint-Germain in August for a $90 million fee, has now played five games for Al-Hilal, and is among the many high-profile footballers to join Saudi Pro League teams from some of Europe’s top clubs.

Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joined Al-Nassr from Manchester United in January, and was followed by the likes of Karim Benzema who joined Al-Ittihad from Real Madrid, and Jordan Henderson who signed with Al-Ettifaq from Liverpool.

The Brazilian holds many goal-related achievements, including being one of the few players in history to have netted at least 100 goals for three different clubs.

Neymar, renowned for his dribbling skills, has previously played for Barcelona in Spain, and Santos in his native Brazil.