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Saudis in off-field win before Japan, Koreans exit World Cup

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Hours before Japan and South Korea endured painful second-round exits from the World Cup in Qatar, continental soccer rival Saudi Arabia had plenty to celebrate.

The All India Football Federation’s decision to pull out of the race to host the 2027 Asian Cup, announced while all the football focus in East Asia was centered on Japan and South Korea’s knockout games on Monday, left Saudi Arabia as the only candidate to host the continental championship.

South Korea, which lost 4-1 to Brazil, and Japan, edged by Croatia after a penalty shootout, progressed further in the World Cup than either Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Off the field, though, the power in Asian soccer moved toward the west side of the continent.

Saudi Arabia is set to be officially confirmed as 2027 host in February when the Asian Football Confederation meets in Bahrain. It will be the first time that the country has staged the continental competition and could also lead to a future World Cup bid.

“People forget that Saudi Arabia has hosted many international events including the 1989 World Youth Cup and three editions of the Confederations Cup,” Hafez Al-Medlej, a former member of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation and the AFC, told domestic media. “The 2027 Asian Cup will be one of the most successful Asian competitions given Saudi Arabia’s ability to host sporting events and this will show that the country will be able to host the World Cup in the coming years.”

While the teams from East Asia have traditionally performed better at soccer’s marquee tournament — South Korea’s run to the World Cup semifinals when it co-hosted the 2002 tournament with Japan remains the best performance by an Asian team — West Asia has kept making strides in the running of the sport.

The United Arab Emirates hosted the 2019 Asian Cup and Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa is set to be named as AFC president for a third term in February. Qatar beat off a challenge from South Korea in October to host the 2023 Asian Cup, using the facilities created for the World Cup.

The Korea Football Association responded to that decision in October with a statement that highlighted some of Qatar’s lobbying.

“Qatar has promised huge financial support, such as the participation of additional sponsors by its own companies in the AFC, which is currently suffering from a loss due to COVID-19, a large-scale broadcasting rights contract with its own broadcasting company, and support for operating expenses of the Asian Cup,” the KFA said in the statement.

Saudi Arabia has never hosted the Asian Cup, which it has won three times since the inaugural event in 1956. The most recent title was in 1996.

Hosting the 2027 edition shaped to be a blockbuster contest when the Saudis, Qatar, Iran, India and Uzbekistan initially submitted bids more than two years ago. No reason was given for India’s withdrawal, though the federation has been in turmoil and was briefly suspended by FIFA this year before staging the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in October.

World Cup host Qatar was awarded the 2023 edition of the Asian Cup after China handed back its hosting rights, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. That tournament is expected to be pushed back to January 2024.

The Korean Football Association said in October that it would take time to reflect on its failure to win the Asian Cup bid, saying it “will do more research and practice on measures to strengthen international competitiveness and soccer diplomacy in the future.”

In the short-term however, as Japan and South Korea leave Doha, they know they will soon return.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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