Momentum builds for Saudi Arabia’s bid to host football World Cup

Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2034 football World Cup is swiftly gathering momentum after countries in Asia and other regions lined up in support and a compressed selection process left scant time for a rival proposal.

Fifa, football’s governing body, announced on Wednesday that the 2030 men’s tournament would be hosted jointly by Spain, Portugal and Morocco, but that three games would also be held in South America to mark the centenary of the first World Cup, which was held in Uruguay. 

The unprecedented move to spread the tournament across three continents narrowed the field to countries in Asia and Oceania for the following tournament. North America will host the next World Cup in 2026.  

Within hours of Fifa’s surprise announcement, Saudi Arabia confirmed its intention to bid for the 2034 competition. 

“We believe the time is right for Saudi Arabia to host the Fifa World Cup”, said Yasser Al Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation in a statement. “Our bid is driven by a love for the game and a desire to see it grow in every corner of the world.”

The confirmation of Riyadh’s intentions follows a campaign to build relationships across football, part of a broader push into global sport. It has splashed out hundreds of millions of dollars to bring elite players to its domestic league.

“Saudi Arabia has played a blinder. It has shown respect for relationships within global football, but it has cleared the path for the country, possibly, being the sole bidder for 2034” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Lille, France.

The Saudi proposal quickly garnered messages of support, including from the football federations of Gulf neighbours Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, as well as from Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the Bahraini head of the Asian Football Confederation.

The Saudi bid may advance unopposed. The only other country to have expressed interest in hosting the tournament so far is Australia, a fellow member of the AFC.

However, Fifa has now set a deadline for expressions of interest for the end of this month, giving bidders just over three weeks to make a decision. Australia, which is already due to host the summer Olympics in 2032, might also need to find a co-host to meet the infrastructure requirements. The expansion of the tournament format to 48 teams requires hosts to have at least 14 stadiums, Qatar hosted the 2022 World Cup with just eight.

Following Fifa’s announcement, Football Australia said it was still “exploring the possibility of bidding” for either the 2034 World Cup or the 2029 Club World Cup. The country co-hosted the Women’s World Cup with New Zealand earlier this year.

“We will get a Saudi tournament in 2034,” said Chadwick. “Who is going to argue [against it]?”

Saudi Arabia’s football federation has signed a long list of memorandums of understanding with counterparts in Asia, Africa and elsewhere in the past year.

Riyadh has also been building ties with Fifa itself. At the opening ceremony of the Qatar World Cup, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat next to Fifa president Gianni Infantino — the pair had previously attended boxing matches in Saudi Arabia together. Visit Saudi, the country’s tourism board, put itself forward as a sponsor for the most recent Women’s World Cup, although the deal was ultimately dropped. 

The prospect of a Saudi-hosted World Cup and Fifa’s plan to spread the 2030 tournament across the Atlantic have already drawn sharp criticism from fans groups, environmental campaigners and human rights activists.  

“Fifa continues its cycle of destruction against the greatest tournament on Earth”, said Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella group representing fans across the continent. “Horrendous for supporters, disregards the environment and rolls the red carpet out to a host for 2034 with an appalling human rights record. It’s the end of the World Cup as we know it.”

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