Inside Lines: Mandela's a coup but Muslim vote is the key
Sebastian Coe will not be making a unique sporting pilgrimage to Mecca, where the inaugural Islamic Solidarity Games - the biggest multinational sports event outside the Olympics - opened yesterday amid splendour in the holiest of Muslim citadels. But he has passed this way before and doubtless will do so again in the quest to win vital Muslim backing for London 2012. He has already had informal talks with Saudi's influential IOC member, Prince Nawaf, and although he can't make it to Mecca he will be in the Middle East again next weekend, attending an IAAF Council meeting in Qatar.
Getting Nelson Mandela's backing is perhaps the biggest coup so far in the London campaign, but Coe knows that wooing the 15-strong Islamic vote is even more vital, as it could sway the decision in Singapore on 6 July. It is a pity his commitments in Australia did not allow him to be here, as rivals Paris and New York have sent Olympic envoys, but the good lord's feet have hardly touched the ground recently. After Qatar there will be more flesh-pressing at sports conventions in Berlin and then Accra.
At this rate he will acquire more air miles than the man who invented them, Keith Mills, now his chief executive at London 2012. Coe is not among those who writes off the Islamic vote because of the Iraq war, but it is clear from talking to sports and political leaders here that it remains a factor, as does antipathy towards Bush and Blair. The likelihood is that while the Saudis may vote for London the majority will plump for Paris.
Son of Gaddafi seeks to take Roman route
How long will it be before an Arabian Abramovich takes over a British football club? There is no shortage of potential benefactors from a region where pockets run as deep as the oil wells. At least one member of the Saudi royal family is known to have expressed an interest in buying into a Premiership club, as have a group of billionaire businessmen from surrounding Gulf states. But the man determined to get in first is Saadi el-Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, who is said to be planning a £200m offer for a "well-known British team". Having failed to make his mark as a player with the Italian club Perugia, Gaddafi, 31, apparently with dad's approval, is reactivating his plan to buy a United Kingdom club. Aston Villa, Everton, Tottenham and West Ham are believed to be among his targets, but all he will say publicly is: "This is very sensitive. It is like the Anglican church, they don't want foreigners to take control. But buying a British club would help broaden Libya's image."
Saudi's World Cup aspirations no mirage
Many observers here believe the Islamic Games are a dry run (in every sense) for a future bid to stage football's World Cup in the Middle East. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, is keen for the event to be held for the first time in this region, where opulence is no object and the passion for the game is growing. Saudi Arabia have the stadiums and the financial resources to host the tournament on their own, but Fifa might favour a joint bid to be assembled with one of the Gulf States - Oman, Kuwait, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. With 2010 set for South Africa, and 2014 likely to go to South America, 2018 could be the date for football's desert song.
It is not unusual when those from Africa or Asia to whom you have just been introduced say: "Ah, British. Manchester United!" Occasionally Arsenal, Liverpool or perhaps these days Chelsea will be the first phrase that springs to their lips. But Bolton Wanderers?
Such was the greeting from a large, jolly gentleman from Senegal, with whom I shared a breakfast table in Jeddah. "Can you ask Big Sam to bring them to play in Dakar?" he beseeched. There, obviously Sam Allardyce is as big as he is in Bolton, thanks to live telecasts of all their Premiership games. Of course, Senegal's own El-Hadji Diouf really is the main man, and off his back Bolton's shirt sales now outstrip all others. Senegal's World Cup exploits in 2002 have spawned a phenomenal upsurge of interest in football in the country, with five daily sports newspapers where once there were none. But what about Diouf's spitting image? "Can't understand it," said my friend. "He really is such a nice boy." He beamed when I told him that is what Big Sam says, too.
The last time we visited Saudi Arabia, 18 months ago, we chronicled the return of the Iraqi football team to world competition following the fall of Saddam.
However, as they are involved in World Cup qualifying matches, they miss the Islamic Games football event, one of the 13 sports scheduled. These include athletics, swimming and tennis but not boxing - the only contact sport is karate, which has attracted the biggest entry, of 34 nations. This will disappoint Maurice "Termite" Watkins, the Texan who coached their Olympic squad. The former light-welterweight did such a good job, often literally under fire in Baghdad, that he is to receive a special award from the American Boxing Writers next month.
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