GENEVA (AP) — The near certainty that Saudi Arabia will host the 2034 men’s World Cup unites two of the most influential men in world sports: the leader of soccer’s governing body and the kingdom’s crown prince.
Under its President Gianni Infantino, FIFA has become increasingly involved in Persian Gulf nations looking to make their mark in global soccer. Critics call that involvement part of a hunger for money that risks the sport’s integrity. FIFA also has a stated commitment to protect human rights that critics say risks being violated.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for his part, has been spearheading a massive Saudi investment in athletics, including soccer and golf, in a push that critics call sportswashing — using athletics to clean an image. In the case of Saudi Arabia, U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi was slain inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Prince Mohammed likely approved the killing, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, though Riyadh still denies he was involved.
A half-decade later, Saudi Arabia stands alone in the 2034 bidding contest after Australia declined Tuesday to enter a fast-track FIFA process that seemed designed to find one winner for hosting the marquee event in the world’s most-watched sport. The men’s World Cup should earn Switzerland-based FIFA more than $10 billion in almost entirely tax-free revenue.
Infantino has lavished praise on soccer-hosting heads of state and has built a deepening bond with Saudi Arabia since a December 2017 visit to King Salman, Prince Mohammed’s father, in Riyadh. He also has been spending increasing amounts of time with Prince Mohammed, known to many as by his initials MbS.
Infantino was on the sidelines of a summit of Gulf leaders that eased a yearslong embargo against Qatar, the tiny emirate that hosted the 2022 World Cup.
He was at the White House for the signing of the “Abraham Accords,” a ceremony hosted by then-President Donald Trump formalizing diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
“We are in the lucky situation that I can speak to anyone in the Gulf region and talk just about football,” Infantino once said.
Soccer is one powerful element of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 program, which includes building up the tourism and entertainment sectors for the future of the oil-rich kingdom in a world moving to renewable energy.
Since 2021, Saudi Arabia has bought the English club Newcastle, sponsored the World Cup and other competitions, lured Cristiano Ronaldo and a slew of star players from Europe to a rebooted domestic league.
“Mohammed bin Salman wants Saudi Arabia to be a hub of anything and everything,” Middle East expert James Dorsey said.
A Swiss lawyer, Infantino was elected in 2016 to lead world soccer.
Big policy ideas that he has pushed but that other international soccer leaders blocked include: a $25 billion deal for new competitions backed mostly with Saudi sovereign wealth; expanding the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, and forcing Qatar to let neighboring states host games; and having World Cups every two years instead of four.
In 2019, FIFA appeared all-in on China as a future World Cup host, maybe as soon as 2030. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and FIFA canceled the planned June 2021 relaunch in China of its Club World Cup event.
The realities of soccer politics meant 2030 was clearly Europe’s turn after Russia hosted in 2018, Qatar had 2022 and the 2026 World Cup will be in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Saudi officials worked with Egypt and Greece — whose prime minister met with Infantino in August 2022 — on a three-continent plan that later faded.
Infantino in June delayed launching the rules for the 2030 bid, a move that bought more time for the Saudis after Greece said it was officially out.
On Oct. 4, Infantino’s 37-member council, meeting remotely online, accepted a six-nation, Europe-Africa-South America plan as the only candidate for 2030 and — stunningly — opened the 2034 contest immediately and only to members from Asia and Oceania.
A further FIFA thumb on the scales was giving eligible members just 27 days to meet a tight deadline to enter, and just one month more to sign detailed bid documents.
Within hours, the Saudi Arabian soccer federation was in, the 47-member Asian governing body – including Australia – was backing it, and Australia was left wondering what happened.
“Saudi is a strong bid, they’ve got a lot of resources,” Football Australia CEO James Johnson said Tuesday after accepting not to bid. “Their government, top down, are prioritizing the investment in football and that’s difficult to compete with.”
FIFA declined to specify details of fast-tracking the 2034 award. FIFA members must still formally rubber-stamp the 2030 and 2034 hosts at meetings expected late next year, yet Infantino has spoken in recent weeks as if the deals are done.
“As we live in an increasingly divided and aggressive world, we show once again that football, the leading global sport, unites like nothing else,” the FIFA leader wrote Tuesday on his Instagram account, adding that “the upcoming FIFA World Cups provide a unique force for good in this respect.”
In Saudi Arabia this week, soccer federation president Yasser Al Misehal – a FIFA Council member and likely candidate in 2027 to lead Asian soccer – said this week that his country is committed to “grow the game across different corners of the globe and inspire future generations.”
In a rare television interview in September, the Saudi crown prince told Fox News that “I don’t care” about claims that he is using sports to mask a poor human-rights record.
“Well, if sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by 1%,” he said, “then I will continue doing sportswashing.”
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