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Saudi Arabia to host 2034 World Cup – what does it mean for football?

Saudi Arabia to host 2034 World Cup – what does it mean for football?

Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of being confirmed as host of the 2034 World Cup.

Australia was the only other nation that had expressed an interest in hosting the competition and was still in the running. On Tuesday morning, Australia confirmed it would not be bidding to host the competition. Barring a last-minute entrant into the race, it means the Gulf nation will host the World Cup in 11 years’ time.

It will be the first time Saudi hosts a competition of this scale. So what does this mean for FIFA, Saudi Arabia and the wider world of football?


Why does FIFA want a Saudi World Cup?

We can start with the answer you will hear for the next 11 years: to grow the game.

FIFA and its president, Gianni Infantino, tell us regularly how the role of world football’s governing body is all about developing the sport across the world. FIFA’s website also tells us FIFA “is modernising football to be global, accessible and inclusive in all aspects. Not just on one or two continents, but everywhere”.

Now, mere reader, you might be wondering how being “inclusive in all aspects” translates to Saudi Arabia, where Amnesty International reported over 100 executions between January and October 2023 and where LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against in law, but that, according to FIFA’s president, is actually very exclusionary of you.

Other clues for why FIFA might enjoy a World Cup in Saudi Arabia may be traced back to an interview with Jerome Valcke, the former FIFA secretary general (later convicted by a Swiss court for accepting bribes), who said in 2013 that sometimes “less democracy is better for organising a World Cup”.

This means heavily state-sponsored World Cup projects are often more concerned with the prestige of holding a tournament and less concerned by the heavy costs of holding a tournament, while they may also be happier to leave FIFA to exploit commercial assets. In the 2026 tournament in the U.S., for example, FIFA is discovering all manner of challenges with the costs of renting training facilities for teams, as well as major disputes with individual cities and stadium owners over the revenue-sharing agreements. This should all be more straightforward in Saudi Arabia.

This all leads to a more profitable World Cup for FIFA and the proceeds can then be spread more evenly across member associations, which means those member associations are happier with FIFA and their president Infantino, who may or may not stay in charge of FIFA longer as a result.

Why does Saudi Arabia want a World Cup?

“The 2034 FIFA World Cup is our invitation to the world to witness Saudi Arabia’s development, experience its culture and become part of its history,” says Yasser Al Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF).

The national objective of Saudi Arabia has been tied around ‘Vision 2030’. This is described by government literature as “a unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world”, with the idea being to diversify the economy away from oil and gas to create a more sustainable long-term economy.

A World Cup bid for 2030, therefore, was the original plan and Saudi explored a collaboration with Egypt and Greece before realising FIFA were unlikely to award a second World Cup to a state that borders Qatar within eight years of the previous tournament in 2022. As such, Saudi decided to go it alone for 2034.

Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudis have dived headfirst into sporting projects. Examples include the state’s sovereign wealth fund PIF deciding to acquire the English Premier League club Newcastle United, as well as backing the LIV Golf breakaway tour, plus a 10-year, $650million (£535m) deal to host Formula One races and staging the 2019 heavyweight boxing clash between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz, and of course the launch of the Saudi Pro League in football earlier this year, with recruits such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Dennis Horak, the Canadian ambassador to Saudi between 2015 and 2018, told The Athletic earlier this year: “The whole opening of the entertainment and sports sphere is a big part of Vision 2030. With the LIV Golf (funded by Saudi Arabia) and now high-level sponsorships, such as Lionel Messi as a tourism ambassador, they’re trying to take it to another level and make it more global. Saudi’s reputation globally needs a sprucing up and it is about trying to rebrand the country.”


The Saudi Grand Prix in March 2023 (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Is the Qatar 2022 vote the last one we’ll see?

There was no vote for the 2030 World Cup or — now — the 2034 one.

This is a consequence of two issues. Firstly, the World Cup is now dished out on a rotational basis around the different continents. The World Cup cannot be hosted in the same continent more than once every 12 years — meaning the 2034 edition had to be held in Asia or Oceania.

Given there are seven continents, no one is planning to host a World Cup in Antarctica any time soon, and Australia falls under the Asian Confederation, this hugely limits which country can bid for a tournament each time the bidding process comes up.

As a result, if a confederation that is likely to win the bid collectively backs one nation— as happened with the bid for 2034 — votes are rarely going to be needed to decide who hosts the World Cup.

What is Saudi’s football heritage?

Organised football is relatively young in Saudi Arabia, but there is certainly more of an established football culture than there was in Qatar before they hosted the tournament in 2022. The national federation was only set up in 1956 and the first national professional domestic league had its first season in 1976. Unlike today, with a handful of the top clubs having recruited expensive stars over the past year or so, historically the top players in the Saudi Pro League have been domestic, something that started to change in the 1990s.

Majed Abdullah, who played his entire career for Al Nassr, remains the all-time top goalscorer in both the domestic league and for the national team. Al Hilal are the most dominant club — they have won 18 league titles — but Al Ittihad, led by former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspurs manager Nuno Espirito Santo, are the current champions.

The national team first qualified for the World Cup in 1994, providing one of the tournament’s most spectacular goals as Saeed Al Owairan dribbled from deep in his own half to score against Belgium. They’ve been present at almost every tournament since, missing out in 2010 and 2014, and in 2022 were the only team to beat eventual champions Argentina.

Even before Roberto Mancini took their national team job this year, they had a long history of attracting prestigious head coaches. Ferenc Puskas was one of their earlier managers for a brief time in the 1970s, while two men who won the World Cup for Brazil — Mario Zagallo and Carlos Alberto Parreira — have both had spells in charge, as have Frank Rijkaard, Bert van Marwijk and Herve Renard.


Saudi celebrate beating Argentina at the 2022 World Cup (Antonin Thuillier/AFP via Getty Images)

Does this mean the Saudi Pro League will grow?

Almost certainly, but not because there is any strong causal link between hosting World Cups and growth in the host’s domestic competitions. It could be claimed that there is no such link whatsoever.

The Saudi Pro League will continue to grow because the government has now made the most public decade-long commitment to football that any government can make.

Hosting the most popular sporting event on the planet is just a doubling down of the bet the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) has made on football. This part of the plan is not particularly sophisticated; MBS and his family rule a relatively young football-mad country that is very rich at the moment but with an economy that is dependent on its fossil fuels for revenue.

Breaking that dependence is an existential challenge. MBS must diversify the economy (or risk Saudi Arabia returning to being a non-entity on the global stage), create jobs for his people and keep a lid on any possible threats to his family’s grip on power. Sport can help — particularly football.

This is because sport is universally popular and enables governments of all varieties, and anywhere on the planet, to project positive messages about their countries. For a country with Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record, the benefits here are obvious.

By staging major sports and entertainment events, Saudi Arabia is promoting itself as a place to visit but also as a place to work. The state’s huge investment in sport is a fraction of the amount it is spending on basic infrastructure, tourism and new industries.

As well as the obvious concerns for the country’s wealth, MBS and his advisors must also think about its health. Saudi Arabia might be young, but its population is not particularly active. The jury’s out on whether hosting big events, or even successful domestic competitions, inspires people to take up sports, but lots of other countries, including the UK, have tried it. None, however, has thrown as much money at it, and as quickly, as Saudi Arabia will.

You also have to consider Saudi Arabia’s regional and global political ambitions. As the largest state in the Gulf and the home of Islam, the country has long seen itself as the regional power, but a huge part of Vision 2030 is making sure all of its neighbours know that, too. Qatar and the UAE have both successfully used sports, entertainment and tourism to project themselves on the world stage and Saudi Arabia has noticed. Creating one of the world’s strongest football leagues, stuffed with international stars, then hosting the World Cup is the ultimate power move by MBS.

What are the human rights issues around Saudi Arabia?

It is quite a list, as the New York-based advocacy and research group Human Rights Watch (HRW) pointed out in a statement this week, in which it strongly criticised FIFA for failing to follow its own human rights policies.

HRW pointed out in their statement that FIFA’s Human Rights Policy says it is responsible in identifying and addressing adverse human rights impacts from what it does and should prevent and mitigate abuses.

It noted that women’s rights remain subordinate to men’s thanks to the country’s male guardianship system and that sex outside marriage, including same-sex relations, is a crime that can be punished by death. As a result, LGBTQ+ people in Saudi Arabia must practice “extreme self-censorship to survive their daily lives”.

Mass executions, for a variety of crimes, are still common and critics of the government face house arrest, imprisonment and even torture. There are no political parties, trade unions or independent media. In 2018, Saudi agents murdered and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi for criticising the government. Many Western intelligence agencies believe MBS ordered the assassination — a claim he has denied.

Saudi Arabia also depends on migrant workers in the same way as Qatar and the UAE and treats them just as poorly.

“With Saudi Arabia’s estimated 13.4million migrant workers, inadequate labour and heat protections and no unions, no independent human rights monitors and no press freedom, there is every reason to fear for the lives of those who would build and service stadiums, transit, hotels and other hosting infrastructure in Saudi Arabia,” said HRW’s director of global initiatives, Minky Worden.

And then there is the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is involved in a bitter civil war that has become another proxy conflict with its regional rival Iran. Thousands of Yemenis have died in this largely forgotten war, with recent reports of refugees being shot by Saudi border guards.

If you thought Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup was controversial, Saudi Arabia is about to up the ante.


MBS with French President Emmanuel Macron (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Will it be in the summer?

This is unclear as it stands.

The 2022 tournament in Qatar was moved to the winter due to the heat of the Gulf summer. Daily highs tend to be around 41C (106F) and the lows are around 31C.

It tends to get slightly hotter in Saudi Arabia, with highs of around 43C and lows of around 30C. Like Qatar, these temperatures are not conducive to either playing football or attending football matches.

Where are the other World Cups?

The next edition of the World Cup, which takes place in 2026, will be held across an entire continent. Canada, Mexico and the United States will host that competition.

The hosts of the 2030 edition will be Morocco, Portugal and Spain, but there will be an additional element to the tournament: the 2030 competition is the centenary edition of the World Cup, with the first competition having taken place in Uruguay in 1930.

FIFA has therefore announced that three World Cup matches will take place in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay to celebrate the anniversary. A centenary ceremony will also take place in Uruguay’s capital Montevideo.

As the World Cup cannot be hosted in the same continent more than once every 12 years, the 2034 edition had to be held in Asia or Oceania.

Additional reporting: Nick Miller and Amitai Winehouse

(Top photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

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