Saudi Arabia, the likely host of the football World Cup in 2034, is benefiting from the increasingly unclear designation process by the sport’s governing body, which seems to disregard all environmental priorities and the interests of teams and spectators.
FIFA’s announcement, on Tuesday, October 31, that Saudi Arabia was the sole bidder to host the World cup in 2034 raises multiple questions about the process of designating the host country for one of the most watched sporting events on the planet.
The official awarding of the competition is not expected until the end of 2024, but the outcome seems so obvious that it is more of a fait accompli than the open and transparent competition it is supposed to be. The Saudi kingdom became the lone candidate after Australia’s withdrawal. With Indonesia backing Saudi Arabia rather than embarking on a joint bid with Australia, the latter apparently felt that the outcome was already clear.
For several years now, FIFA has been issuing a series of decisions that have made the process of awarding World Cups increasingly unclear and predetermined. If Australia and Saudi Arabia seemed to be the only countries in the running, it was because, on October 4, FIFA chose to reserve the 2034 World Cup for Asia-Oceania (which includes the Middle East), having awarded the 2030 World Cup to a group of countries across three continents, breaking the tradition of geographical rotation. Spain, Portugal and Morocco will host the 2030 edition, but three matches will be played in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, with the pretext that this will allow Uruguay to celebrate the centenary of the World Cup, first played in that country in 1930. Thanks to this remarkable sleight of hand, the tournament will take place in Europe, Africa and South America, paving the way for Asia-Oceania in 2034.
MBS, king of sportswashing
From then on, Saudi Arabia was in pole position. Its leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as “MBS,” wants to make the kingdom one of the great centers of international sporting competition of all kinds: golf, boxing, Formula 1 and, of course, football, a sport that is very popular in the country and the Arab world in general. The hosting of world sports championships and the recruitment by local clubs of international football stars such as Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema have become a major soft power asset for the kingdom and a tool for economic diversification, so much so that MBS has been dubbed the “king of sportswashing.”
The autocrat, who is constantly criticized by human rights NGOs, makes no secret of his ambitions: “If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%, then we will continue doing sportswashing,” he recently said to Fox News. “I am aiming for another 1.5%. Call it whatever you want.”
After the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, FIFA chief Gianni Infantino carefully cultivated his relationship with MBS. Beyond the legitimate criticism of the nature of the Saudi regime, however, this new controversy requires that Infantino and FIFA, a huge profit machine, provide a much better explanation as to the process behind decisions that promote the construction of air-conditioned stadiums, disrupt the calendars of national competitions, and force teams and fans to increasingly travel from one continent to another.