Iranian bid for FIFA tournament takes tension with the Gulf to the soccer pitch
Rivalry between Iran and the Gulf states has spilled on to the soccer pitch with a decision by the Iranian Football Federation to bid for the hosting of the FIFA Club World Cup in 2013 and 2014.
The announcement by world soccer body FIFA that Iran would be bidding followed a declaration by UAE Football Association president Mohamed Khalfan al Rumaithi that his organization is interested in hosting the tournament provided it receives government backing.
The UAE has already won the right to stage the FIFA Under 17 World Cup in 2013. Abu Dhabi hosted the 2009 / 2010 elite club tournament, which features the champions from the six continental federations and the champions of the host nation. Morocco and South Africa are also bidding for the 2013/2014 Club World Cup.
Bids are due by September 30; FIFA is expected to award the tournament on October 21.
The Iranian bid comes amid mounting tension with Gulf states over allegations that the Islamic republic is instigating the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and barely a week after Morocco was invited to join the Saudi-led, six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which the United Arab Emirates is a member.
Saudi officials last month threatened to withdraw their diplomats from Iran if they were not accorded greater protection following anti-Saudi demonstrations in front of the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in Iran.
Iranian police intervened earlier this month during an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League group C match between Iran's Persepolis and Saudi's Al-Ittihad at the Azadi stadium in Tehran.
Some 300 hardliners protested at the stadium against Saudi intervention in Bahrain to quell Shiite Muslim protests in demand of reform.
Soccer tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia first erupted in early March when Saudi immigration authorities demanded the Persepolis team be fingerprinted and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Ittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom, and was held at the airport for eight hours.
The diplomatic sparring and soccer tensions are building blocks of an escalating cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Iranian support for its Shiite brethren in Bahrain as well as protests elsewhere in the Arab world and Gulf accusations of Iranian spying in Kuwait and Bahrain with a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])