Fifa and Infantino’s influence demonstrated through Saudi Arabia’s successful World Cup qualification journey | By Paul MacInnes

The World Cup had not even finished in Qatar last winter before the question began to be asked: when would it be Saudi Arabia’s turn? Like a mist creeping in off the sea, from nowhere the conversation was suddenly ubiquitous and the outcome apparently inevitable. Now, not even a year later, we know the answer.

The 2034 Fifa men’s World Cup will be held in Saudi Arabia, barring any unforeseen or catastrophic events. While officially only showing interest in hosting the 48-team tournament, Saudi Arabia is currently the only candidate. They have the support of the Asian Football Confederation and over 100 Fifa member nations. Additionally, Saudi Arabia holds a special place in Gianni Infantino’s heart, as evidenced by his recent visit to Riyadh for the launch of an esports tournament.

The unexpected success of Saudi Arabia has surprised many. The Fifa council meeting in October was anticipated to discuss the future of international football scheduling, but buried within item 4.6 was a proposal regarding the bidding and hosting of the FIFA World Cup™. This proposal introduced a new approach, overturning previous rules and ensuring that the tournament would rotate between all confederations, with Asia or Oceania guaranteed to host in 2034. These changes allowed Saudi Arabia to confidently bid and secure its success almost immediately. Attendees at the meeting, which included high-ranking football administrators such as the president of Uefa and the chair of the English FA, were only informed about these changes a week prior. Despite this short notice, the proposal was successfully voted in.

There has been no public expression of dissatisfaction with the management of this process. Australia’s response serves as a lesson. For quite some time, it has been speculated that Australia has desired to host the men’s World Cup in 2034, possibly alongside Indonesia. However, when given a 25-day deadline to make a decision, Football Australia, which is part of the Asian confederation, ultimately chose to step down. The organization’s CEO, James Johnson, was accepting of this outcome, stating “It is what it is.” Sources indicate that Australia is currently leading the race to host Fifa’s ambitious new Club World Cup in 2029.

If recent circumstances suggest that football is now prioritizing fulfilling Saudi Arabia’s requests, this would not be the first instance where discussions of principles – such as transparency and responsibility, as well as more complex issues like safeguarding human rights – have been overshadowed by the actual practice of the sport. However, it also demonstrates that, in line with Infantino’s goals, football is finally evolving into a truly worldwide sport.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino sits with the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh earlier this month.

The traditional powers of soccer were awakened at the Qatar World Cup. Attempts to enforce European values were rejected, including bans on alcohol and the exclusion of the rainbow flag as a symbol of support for LGBTQ+ individuals. The World Cup will soon return to the Gulf, specifically Saudi Arabia where being gay is illegal and political dissent can result in death. There will be close attention paid to how European nations, particularly England, handle the tournament and whether they choose to address these issues. European leagues may also have to adapt to a winter World Cup. For other countries, many of whom have signed agreements with the Saudi Football Federation, this outcome may indicate a positive change in the balance of influence.

Fifa and the world of football may soon see a significant increase in investment from Saudi Arabia, particularly in relation to the upcoming World Cup. This could come in the form of sponsorships or various agreements. Many are now wondering what Saudi Arabia hopes to gain from these ventures. The truth is, nobody is sure. It is clear that the country has ambitious goals for sports, viewing it as a means to boost tourism and foster national unity. However, their plans are complex and all ultimately influenced by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Prince Mohammed expressed his support for sportswashing last month, stating that it would help boost his GDP by 1%.

Many countries have found that hosting a large sporting event does not necessarily lead to a significant increase in national funds. Saudi Arabia still has much infrastructure to construct, as they currently only have four of the 14 required stadiums, even after Fifa lowered the minimum requirement. The confirmation of the World Cup serves as a strong indication of Saudi Arabia’s influence in the world of sports, but its overall impact is yet to be determined.