JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabian champion Al Ittihad and its star striker Karim Benzema avoided Manchester City in the semifinals draw Tuesday for the first FIFA Club World Cup to be hosted by the kingdom.
The Dec. 12-22 tournament for continental champions and the host nation’s league winner will be played in Al Ittihad’s home city Jeddah – the latest statement of Saudi ambitions in global soccer including aiming to host the men’s World Cup in 2034.
The event will be the last Club World Cup in the current annual format before a 32-team version played every four years starts in June 2025. The inaugural host is the United States.
Al Ittihad will open the seven-team tournament against Auckland City, the champion of Oceania.
The winner will advance to face African champion Al Ahly of Egypt in the second round for a place in the semifinals against the champion of South America. The Copa Libertadores is currently at the semifinals stage featuring Boca Juniors of Argentina and Brazilian clubs Palmeiras, Fluminense and Internacional.
Man City, as the champion of Europe, also gets direct entry to the semifinals and will play either Club León of Mexico or Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.
The final on Dec. 22 will be played at the 62,000-seat King Abdullah Sports City, home of Al Ittihad.
Al Ittihad recruited three former Club World Cup winners in a lavish spending spree by clubs across the Saudi league since Benzema agreed to leave Real Madrid in June.
Benzema won the world club title five times with Madrid , including the last edition in February against a Saudi opponent. Benzema scored in a 5-3 win over Al Hilal that has since signed Neymar.
Benzema’s new club teammates include N’Golo Kanté, who won the 2021 title with Chelsea, and Fabinho, who won with Liverpool in 2019.
Europe's Champions League winner has won the Club World Cup in 15 of the past 16 editions. Only Chelsea lost in 2012 against Corinthians of Brazil.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Saudi soccer federation leader Yasser Almisehal, who is now a member of the ruling FIFA Council, attended the draw ceremony.
The tournament presenting sponsor is Visit Saudi, the tourism board that was resisted as a Women’s World Cup sponsor this year by co-hosts Australia and New Zealand.
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