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After months of speculation and a variety of information, it has been confirmed that Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, via an Instagram post by FIFA president Gianni Infantino.
“Football brings the world together like no other sport, and the FIFA World Cup is the perfect showcase for a message of unity and inclusion, as well as an important illustration of how different cultures can stand together, learn and understand each other better.” announced Infantino on November 1.
For many, the choice of the Gulf kingdom was foreshadowed because of its sponsor links, intense lobbying and FIFA rule changes. The Financial Times (FT) took a slightly more in-depth look at how Saudi Arabia came to host football’s biggest forum in 11 years.
Influence in international sports
Infantino’s statement on November 1 was the consequence and end result of a long process of building Saudi Arabia as a factor in international sport. This happened after an active lobbying and relationship building campaign.
In recent years, the kingdom has hosted Formula 1, major boxing matches, the Dakar Rally and a host of other international events. Also, the local Saudi professional league attracted a number of football stars – Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and others.
But the country’s path was also eased by sudden changes to the governing body’s application process that virtually guaranteed a hassle-free application.
“All the pieces fell into place to make victory for the Saudi bid inevitable,” a person familiar with FIFA’s internal processes told the FT.
For FIFA’s critics, the actions that helped elect Riyadh represent a return to old habits at soccer’s governing body, where transparency, accountability and ethical considerations have given way to backroom deals that serve crude commercial interests. The return of the tournament to the Persian Gulf has also revived concerns raised by human rights groups and fans who dominated the build-up to last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
What did FIFA do?
Infantino, who was elected unopposed for a third term as FIFA president in 2023, has been developing ties with Saudi Arabia for some time. He attended events with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and even appeared in a video for the country’s tourism board in 2021.
Under Infantino, FIFA has sharply increased its revenue, which is expected to rise further in the coming years. The World Cup in Qatar generated $6.3 billion in revenue for the organization, which also has $4 billion in reserves.
The money is allocated to football initiatives or distributed between national federations and FIFA’s regional confederations, which in turn vote on important decisions.
Until Saudi Arabia is officially announced as the host for 2034, all that remains is a vote by the FIFA Council next year. Since there is no other contender, the choice is a foregone conclusion.
The agenda for the Oct. 4 council meeting made this easy. Then there was the item “Bidding processes and hosting of the FIFA World Cup”. FIFA quickly decided that the 2030 World Cup would go to the sole bidder – the joint bid of Spain, Morocco and Portugal – and the first three matches would be in South America (Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay) as a gesture to the first World Finals since 1930.
Documents outlining the 2030 and 2034 plans drawn up at FIFA headquarters were provided at that conference, according to people familiar with the matter.
The organization then gave a deadline of less than a month (until November 1) in which countries from Asia and Oceania could submit expressions of interest for 2034.
Saudi Arabia will host the World Cup in 2034, Infantino announced
Within minutes of the surprise announcement, Saudi Arabia confirmed its intention to bid, quickly gaining the support of more than 125 of FIFA’s 211 member federations, as well as the Asian Football Confederation.
Australia, the only other country to express an interest in hosting the 48-team tournament, was surprised and confirmed its decision not to bid before the October 31 deadline.
“We have to be realistic, Saudi Arabia is a strong bid, they have a lot of resources,” Football Australia chief executive James Johnson said this week. “Their government prioritizes investment in football, and that’s hard to compete with.”
Decisions by soccer’s governing body have come in for a lot of criticism, but Victor Montagliani, FIFA vice-president and head of CONCACAF (the confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football), defended the process.
“In the corporate world, shareholders are not asked to vote on these decisions, the board is asked to vote,” he told the Sports Unlocked podcast.
Widespread support for Riyadh’s plan follows its feverish campaign to expand its presence in football. Dozens of memoranda of understanding have been signed between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and its partners around the world in recent months, and organizations from the kingdom are pouring money into sponsorship deals.
According to Deloitte data, several clubs in the Saudi Professional League, which have money from the country’s sovereign wealth fund, spent more than $900 million on new players in the summer.
A report released this week by Play the Game, an initiative led by the Danish Institute for Sports Research, shows that Saudi sponsors already have more than 300 sports deals, 84 of which are in soccer. In October alone, tourism organization Visit Saudi signed commercial contracts with the Asian and African Football Confederation and Spain’s La Liga.
“They (Saudi leaders) have been able to show FIFA and its president that Saudi Arabia is here to stay in football,” said Stannis Ellsborg, senior analyst at Play the Game.
“The Saudis are so good at working the corridors of power.”
Critics say the changes to the World Cup bid process signal a retreat from reforms to improve transparency and accountability since the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal, which led to an overhaul of the rules, the removal of senior management and the elevation of Infantino to the highest post.
For its part, the organization reported that: “Following the conclusion of the investigations into the previous regime, President Infantino has transformed FIFA from a toxic institution into a respected, credible and modern governing body.”