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Saudi Arabia likely to host 2034 World Cup after Australia decides not to bid for soccer showcase

The Arab country’s sports spending program has been seen as sportswashing to soften a national image associated with its record on women’s rights and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President of South Korea Yoon Suk-Yeol
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President of South Korea Yoon Suk-Yeol in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 24, 2023.SAUDI PRESS AGENCY (via REUTERS)

Saudi Arabia is all but certain to host the men’s 2034 World Cup after the Australian soccer federation decided not to enter the bidding contest, which had been widely seen as shaped by FIFA to suit the oil-rich kingdom.

FIFA had set Tuesday as the deadline for its member federations in Asia and Oceania to formally declare interest in hosting the tournament, and it later confirmed that only Saudi Arabia was in.

Australia’s decision not to enter the race left Saudi Arabia alone as a declared candidate — to the dismay of many human rights activists. “We have explored the opportunity to bid to host the FIFA World Cup and — having taken all factors into consideration — we have reached the conclusion not to do so for the 2034 competition,” Football Australia said in a statement.

FIFA still needs to rubber stamp Saudi Arabia as the host — a decision that is likely to be made late next year — but that now seems a formality.

It would be the culmination of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious drive to become a major player in global sports, having already spent massive amounts on bringing in dozens of star soccer players to its domestic league, buying English soccer club Newcastle, launching the breakaway LIV Golf tour and hosting major boxing fights.

But FIFA’s seeming eagerness to pave the way for Saudi Arabia to host its marquee event has drawn widespread criticism from activists who say it exposes the governing body’s human rights commitments as “a sham.”

Saudi Arabia’s sports spending program approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been described as sportswashing to soften a national image often associated with its record on women’s rights and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has built close ties to Saudi soccer and the crown prince personally, and he has long been seen as trying to steer the world soccer body’s competitions toward the kingdom.

When FIFA made a deal this month to have just one host bid for the 2030 World Cup — uniting Spain, Portugal and Morocco with three games placed in South America — it also fast-tracked the 2034 hosting race with only member federations in Asia and Oceania eligible to bid.

The tight deadline gave them less than four weeks to enter the race by Tuesday and just one month more to sign a bidding agreement with government support for staging 104 games over nearly six weeks.

The timetable “was a little bit of a surprise,” Australian soccer federation leader James Johnson acknowledged Tuesday, adding “we’re adults and we just try to roll with it and deal with the cards that we have been given.”

Within hours of the FIFA announcement on Oct. 4, the Saudi soccer federation said it was in and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) — which includes Australia — said it was backing the kingdom to bring the World Cup back to the Middle East after neighboring Qatar hosted the 2022 edition.

Qatar hosted in November and December, in the heart of the European club soccer season, to avoid extreme heat in the summer months and a Saudi tournament likely also will be moved from the traditional June-July period.

Indonesia’s football association initially showed interest in a joint bid with Australia, potentially alongside Malaysia and Singapore, but that faded when Indonesia instead backed Saudi Arabia.

Australia will instead attempt to secure hosting the 2029 Club World Cup — which will relaunch in 2025 playing every four years in a new format with 32 teams qualifying — and the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup. Saudi Arabia also is bidding for the women’s Asian championship.

“I think there will be some goodwill created by not going for 2034,” Johnson told reporters in an online call, accepting that the resources of a government-backed Saudi bid “is difficult to compete with.”

Australia and New Zealand successfully co-hosted the Women’s World Cup in July and August. Brisbane, Queensland state, is due to become the third Australian city to host the Olympics when it stages the 2032 Summer Games.

Saudi Arabia also will host the men’s Asian Cup in 2027 and has started a widespread construction program to build and renovate stadiums that likely will be used for the World Cup. FIFA’s bidding documents say 14 stadiums are needed at the 48-team tournament.

Qatar’s World Cup was dogged by years-long allegations of rights abuses of migrant workers needed to build its stadiums. “FIFA’s failure in 2010 to insist on human rights protections when it awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is a major reason why serious reforms were so delayed, and so often weakly implemented and enforced,” Football Supporters Europe executive director Ronan Evain said Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia’s preparation should face some of the same scrutiny in the next decade. “With Saudi Arabia’s estimated 13.4 million migrant workers, inadequate labor 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,” Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden said in a recent statement.

“The possibility that FIFA could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup despite its appalling human rights record and closed door to any monitoring exposes FIFA’s commitments to human rights as a sham,” Worden said.

FIFA’s own World Cup bidding documents push potential hosts toward “respecting internationally recognized human rights,” though limits the remit to tournament operations rather than in wider society.

“FIFA must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies,” Amnesty International official Steve Cockburn said in a statement Tuesday. “It must also be prepared to halt the bidding process if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed.”

Aiming to stress the rigor of its bid evaluation processes, FIFA said in a statement later Tuesday its staff will assess the Saudi bid for “event vision and key metrics, infrastructure, services, commercial, and sustainability and human rights.” The 2034 winner looked immediately clear even if the result is not officially final for one more year.

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