KARACHI: Saudi Arabia is in a hurry to get the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) up and running.

And three weeks after an initial meeting, it has invited presidents of the member associations which will be part of it — including the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) — on Thursday to finalise the formation of the newest regional football bloc in the Asian continent.

“It seems it will be finalised now because [world’s football governing body] FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have raised no objections to it,” PFF official Sardar Naveed Haider Khan, who was present at the first meeting in Jeddah, told Dawn on Wednesday.

Initially, the AFC had shown concerns. Those who attended the meeting were handed show-cause notices. And despite the Saudi Arabian Football Federation claiming that 10 countries had met to form the SWAFF, seemingly a merger of the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) and West Asian Football Federation (WAFF), most of the attendees denied that they had formally joined the new bloc.

All the federations who were in attendance were promised a funding of $500,000 while they were also given watches as a gift — a potential breach of ethics rules.

“I didn’t get a watch,” Sardar Naveed said. “It was given to only a few people but I wasn’t one of them. Anyways, I have an old watch which tells the correct time so I didn’t need one.”

He added that the funding wasn’t “for my pocket but like funding from FIFA and AFC it has separate heads for every development section including women’s football and youth football.”

Last week, AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa met Saudi Arabian football chief Adel Ezzat and informed that Asia’s football governing body had no objection to the creation of SWAFF as long as it remained a football body outside of the AFC’s zonal structure.

“SWAFF can come into existence on the lines of the Arab Gulf Cup Football Federation or the Union of Arab Football Associations, which are not part of the AFC but serve the greater purpose of bringing together many Gulf and Arab countries for the sole purpose of football development,” Sheikh Salman was quoted as saying in an AFC news release.

“I am happy to note that Ezzat agreed and confirmed that the establishment of SWAFF will not have any impact on the AFC’s five existing zones — East, West, South, Central and ASEAN — and their current composition.”

While Sheikh Salman was meeting Ezzat, FIFA president Gianni Infantino met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz and Saudi General Sports Authority chairman Turki Al-Sheikh, who is set to be the honourary president of the SWAFF.

The formation of the SWAFF is believed to be a part of Saudi power play in the world of football. And heading the SWAFFF would guarantee Saudi Arabia greater influence over the region.

Saudi Arabia is also part of a consortium that has offered FIFA $25billion for two new football tournaments — a revamped 24-team Club World Cup and a Global Nations League. FIFA president Infantino has been pushing the continental confederations to approve the two new tournaments.

In the meantime, Infantino has also held several meetings with the Saudi Crown Prince, the latest last week “reviewed ways of enhancing cooperation between FIFA and the GSA”.

The AFC did not confirm that Sheikh Salman met with the Saudi Crown Prince or Turki after his meeting with Ezzat.

Many believe Turki has a longstanding ambition to be Asia’s football leader and he’s seen as Infantino’s close ally. Television pictures showed Infantino and Turki greeting each other on the touchline during Saudi Arabia’s World Cup warm-up against Italy in St Gallen on Monday.

Infantino was also present at the inauguration of the Saudi Federation website alongside Ezzat on Tuesday.

The PFF is keen on seeking maximum benefits from Saudi Arabia’s moves to become a global football force.

“We’re always looking for opportunities like this where we can have infrastructure development and funding,” Sardar Naveed added. “It also offers a chance to play national teams of the Middle East because there would be regional tournaments as well.

“SWAFF is a good move and it will be helpful for us. And hopefully PFF president Faisal Saleh Hayat will be attending the meeting tomorrow to finalise its formation.”

Published in Dawn, May 31st, 2018

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