The inquiry of when Saudi Arabia would host the World Cup began to arise even before the tournament ended in Qatar last winter. The topic quickly became prevalent and the outcome seemed certain. However, less than a year has passed and the answer is now clear.
The 2034 Fifa men’s World Cup will take place in Saudi Arabia, and it is highly unlikely that any unforeseen events will alter this decision. Saudi Arabia has officially stated their desire to host the 48-team tournament, and they are the only country in consideration for the role. They have received support from the Asian Football Confederation and over 100 Fifa member nations. Additionally, Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, has a strong interest in the country and was recently in Riyadh for the launch of an esports tournament. This showcases his enthusiasm for sports in Saudi Arabia.
The unexpected victory of Saudi Arabia in achieving uncontested success surprised many. A scheduled meeting of the Fifa council in early October was anticipated to discuss mundane matters regarding the future of the international football calendar. However, buried within item 4.6 of the agenda was a topic titled “Bidding processes and hosting of the FIFA World Cup™”. The proposed idea was a complete overhaul of the current system, disregarding bidding timing rules that were implemented just ten years prior, and ensuring that all confederations have a chance to host the tournament, with Asia or Oceania guaranteed to do so in 2034. These changes not only gave Saudi Arabia confidence in bidding, but also led to their immediate success. Attendees at the meeting, which included high-ranking football administrators such as the president of Uefa and the chair of the English FA, were only informed of these changes a week prior to the meeting. Nevertheless, the changes were successfully voted in.
No public complaints have been made about the handling of this process. Australia’s response was informative. It has been speculated that they have plans to co-host the men’s World Cup in 2034 with Indonesia, but when given a short 25-day deadline to decide, Football Australia, which is part of the Asian confederation, ultimately declined. CEO James Johnson accepted the outcome, stating “It is what it is.” Australia is believed to be the top candidate to host Fifa’s new Club World Cup in 2029.
If recent occurrences suggest that football is prioritizing fulfilling Saudi Arabia’s desires, it would not be the first occasion where discussions about principles – including transparency and accountability as well as more complex issues such as safeguarding human rights – have been overshadowed by the realities of the sport. However, this also demonstrates that, in line with Infantino’s goals, football is finally becoming a truly worldwide activity.
The World Cup in Qatar served as a wake-up call for the traditional rulers of football. Efforts to impose European values on the tournament were rejected, including the prohibition of alcohol and the refusal to recognize the rainbow flag as a symbol of support for the LGBTQ+ community. The upcoming World Cup in Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is illegal and dissent can result in death, will be closely watched to see how European nations, particularly England, handle the tournament and address these issues. European leagues may also have to adjust to another winter World Cup. For other countries that have formed partnerships with the Saudi Football Federation, this event will show whether there has been a positive shift in influence.
For Fifa and perhaps football more broadly there is now the prospect of an extensive infusion of Saudi investment on the back of the World Cup, whether through sponsorship or more MOUs. The question being asked now by those who were reading the tea leaves in Doha last year, is: what does Saudi Arabia want from it all? The answer is that nobody knows. There is no doubt that the country has grand plans for sport, that they see it as a way to develop tourism and unite the nation. But they have so many interlocking plans, all with towering ambition, and each of them ultimately controlled by the desires of one man: the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Prince Mohammed expressed his support for sportswashing last month, stating that he would be willing to do so if it resulted in a 1% increase in his GDP.
Many countries have found that hosting a large sporting event is not the most effective way to improve their economy. Saudi Arabia still needs to construct a significant amount of infrastructure, as they only have four stadiums out of the required 14, even after Fifa lowered the minimum requirement. The confirmation of the World Cup is a strong indication of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the world of sports, but its impact beyond that is uncertain.