After months of speculation, Saudi Arabia’s designation as host of the 2034 men’s football World Cup was confirmed via the Instagram account of Gianni Infantino, Fifa’s divisive president.

“Football unites the world like no other sport, and the Fifa World Cup is the perfect showcase for a message of unity and inclusion,” said Infantino in a post on Tuesday. The oil-rich Gulf kingdom had earlier emerged as the sole bidder for the game’s top prize after potential rival Australia opted not to enter the race.

The outcome followed a vigorous Saudi campaign of lobbying and relationship-building as part of its broader push for influence across international sport. But the country also found its path smoothed by an abrupt set of changes to the governing body’s bidding process that in effect guaranteed an unopposed bid.

“All the pieces fell into place to make it inevitable that a Saudi Arabian bid would win,” said a person familiar with Fifa’s inner workings.

For Fifa’s critics, the moves that helped clear the way for Riyadh’s bid represent a return to old habits at football’s governing body, with transparency, accountability and ethical concerns giving way to backroom deals that serve raw commercial interests. With the tournament set to return to the Gulf, the concerns voiced by rights groups and fans that dominated the run-up to last year’s World Cup in Qatar have also been revived.

Football Supporters Europe said the reputations of both the 2030 and 2034 tournaments were “already tarnished”.

Cristiano Ronaldo in action for Saudi Pro League club Al-Nassr last month
Cristiano Ronaldo led the player exodus from Europe’s top clubs to the Saudi Pro League when he joined Al-Nassr late last year © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

Infantino, who was elected to a third term as Fifa president this year after running unopposed, has been cultivating ties with Saudi Arabia for some time — attending events with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and even appearing in a Saudi tourism video in 2021.

Under Infantino, Fifa’s revenues have soared and are projected to rise significantly in the coming years. The Qatar World Cup generated $6.3bn for the non-profit organisation, which has more than $4bn sitting in reserves. The money is allocated to football initiatives or distributed across Fifa’s national federations and regional confederations, which in turn vote on important decisions.

However, as the sole bidder for 2034, Saudi Arabia will not face a competitive vote when its candidacy is subject to approval at Fifa’s congress next year. 

The decisions that all but delivered Saudi Arabia the 2034 tournament were revealed after a video conference call between the 37 members of the Fifa Council on October 4, chaired by Infantino. The agenda included the item: “4.7: Bidding processes and hosting of the Fifa World Cup.” Other matters, such as the 2025 Beach Soccer World Cup in the Seychelles, would be discussed first.  

Those on the call had been given documents outlining the plans for both 2030 and 2034 that had been drawn up inside Fifa’s head office, according to people familiar with the matter.

Shortly after the call, Fifa unexpectedly announced that the 2030 World Cup had been awarded to a joint and unopposed bid from Spain, Portugal and Morocco, while South America would also host three games to mark the centenary of the first World Cup, held in Uruguay. 

As a result of the 2030 tournament being awarded to six countries across three continents, Europe, Africa and South America immediately joined North America on the list of regions unable to bid for the 2034 World Cup. The US, Canada and Mexico will stage the 2026 competition. 

Fifa then unveiled a deadline of just over three weeks for nations in Asia and Oceania to submit expressions of interest for 2034. Within minutes of the unexpected announcement, Saudi Arabia confirmed its intention to bid, quickly garnering support from more than 125 of Fifa’s 211 member federations as well as the Asian Football Confederation.

Australia, the only other country to have expressed an interest in hosting the 48-team tournament, was caught off guard and confirmed its decision not to mount a challenge ahead of the October 31 deadline. 

“We have to be realistic, Saudi is a strong bid, they’ve got a lot of resources,” James Johnson, Football Australia’s chief executive said this week. “Their government [is] prioritising investment in football and that’s difficult to compete with.”

Victor Montagliani, Fifa vice-president and head of Concacaf, the football federation for North and Central America and the Caribbean, defended the decision-making process, saying it was a reflection of a more “strategic” approach to managing the organisation’s key revenue-generating asset.

“In the corporate world, shareholders don’t get asked to vote on those decisions, it’s the board,” he told the Sports Unlocked podcast.

Saudi Arabian festival brand Riyadh Season sponsors the Italian team AS Roma
Saudi Arabian festival brand Riyadh Season sponsors the Italian team AS Roma © Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Widespread support for Riyadh’s plan follows its frenetic campaign to expand its presence within the game. Dozens of memorandums of understanding have been signed in recent months between the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and its counterparts around the globe, while entities from the kingdom have been pouring money into sponsorship deals. 

Several clubs in the Saudi Pro League, flush with cash from the country’s sovereign wealth fund, spent more than $900mn on new players over the summer, according to Deloitte. Stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema now play for Saudi clubs. 

A report released this week by Play the Game, an initiative run by the Danish Institute for Sports Studies, showed that Saudi sponsors now have more than 300 sports deals, 84 of which are in football. In October alone, tourist body Visit Saudi sealed commercial deals with the Asian and African football confederations, and Spain’s La Liga.

“They have succeeded in showing Fifa and its president that Saudi Arabia is here to stay in football,” said Stanis Elsborg, senior analyst at Play the Game. “They have been so good at working the corridors of power.”

Critics say the changes in the World Cup bidding process are a sign of backsliding on reforms to improve transparency and accountability following Fifa’s 2015 corruption scandal, which resulted in the overhaul of its rule book, the ousting of its top leadership and the elevation of Infantino to the top job. 

Fifa said: “Since the conclusion of investigations into the previous regime, President Infantino has changed Fifa from a toxic institution to a respected, trusted and modern governing body.”

Infantino said this week that all decisions related to the bidding process had been made “by consensus” and followed “extensive consultation”.

Miguel Maduro, Fifa’s former ethics chief, said that while football’s governing body was once prone to corruption, the current system of patronage relied instead on “legitimate” methods for using both money and favours to build networks of power and influence. 

“Instead of giving $20,000 in an envelope to the head of a football federation to buy his vote, now you can sponsor the activity of a football league or competition,” he said. “It’s legal and much more effective.” 

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