FIFA President Gianni Infantino pictured on his recent visit to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia ©FIFA

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, criticised recently for the closeness of his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, has courted further potential controversy by visiting Saudi Arabia.

Last May, Saudi Arabia formally proposed the FIFA proposal of holding the World Cup every two years, rather than every four years, a plan which has generated strong opposition, notably from UEFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The Saudi regime has also received international criticism for its role in the bombing in Yemen and the state-ordered assassination  of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Infantino met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Minister of Sports, Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, and President of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF), Yasser Al-Mishal "to review areas of cooperation and potential opportunities for further development of Saudi football."

During a previous visit to the Kingdom last year, the FIFA President stressed the importance of developing women's football in Saudi Arabia.

His latest visit to Riyadh came shortly after the Saudi women's national team - now under the charge of Monika Staab, the widely-respected German coach - played their first-ever matches, beating Seychelles and Maldives in a min-tournament held in Malé.

Infantino had been asked at a press conference last month, as Russia entered into its invasion of Ukraine, if he regretted his enthusiastic praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years, and whether he was considering returning the Order of Friendship Putin had given him.

"We are constantly reflecting on the role of sport in trying to bring people together in a peaceful environment," Infantino, a member of the IOC, said. 

"I firmly believe in sport to bring people together.

"Football is about all the people from all over the world.

"Today my thoughts are with all the people who are affected by this escalating conflict – and nothing else."

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, right, has been the subject of criticism due to this close relationship with Vladimir Putin ©Getty Images
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, right, has been the subject of criticism due to this close relationship with Vladimir Putin ©Getty Images

After initially allowing Russia to play under the name of "Football Union of Russia" with the national flag and anthem not appearing at matches, FIFA and UEFA later banned the nation outright from competitions following pressure from other nations.

The Czech Republic, Poland and Sweden refused to play Russia in World Cup qualifying because of the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has since registered appeals filed by the Russian Football Union.

The RFU has requested the CAS for a stay on the bans on its national teams and clubs until a full hearing is held, which would see the sides reinstated and in theory mean that Russia's men can participate in a qualification playoff for the World Cup later this year.