Saudi Arabia was left as a shoo-in to host the 2034 World Cup after Australia confirmed it would not make a bid for soccer’s global showpiece. Australia’s Football Australia (FA) said on Tuesday it had “explored the possibility” of bidding for 2034 but had concluded not to do so. The decision came only hours before FIFA’s deadline for declaring interest in hosting the men’s tournament. Australia had been seen as the main rival to a Saudi Arabian bid, with the support of the Asian Football Confederation and Indonesia.
The kingdom has dived headfirst into sports under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the state-owned Public Investment Fund (PIF) buying English Premier League club Newcastle United, backing Formula One race-holders Sauber Ferrari, and announcing plans for a luxury golf resort. The country is attempting to use its oil wealth to diversify into other industries as it grapples with lower commodity prices. It has also invested in the nation’s sports infrastructure, opening a new stadium at the King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh last year.
But while football has been a primary focus, the country is still viewed as a controversial host by critics for its human rights record — 81 men were executed on one day last year — women’s rights abuses and restrictions on free speech. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 further damaged its international standing.
Nevertheless, the federation says it will continue its efforts to promote the game. It has already launched a domestic league that signed players including Cristiano Ronaldo and Sadio Mane, although many believe it needs to be more competitive to attract elite players.
The Saudis hope a successful World Cup bid will help the country’s Vision 2030 project, a multi-billion riyal plan to move away from an economy largely dependent on oil and into other sectors. But despite the success of the Qatar World Cup, there are doubts that Saudi Arabia’s facilities can hold such a big tournament.
FIFA rules dictate that nations must have 14 stadiums to host 48 teams for two weeks in October and November. Saudi Arabia has four existing venues that seat 40,000 spectators, which should meet the requirements. But critics say that even if the country can accommodate the games, a World Cup in Saudi Arabia would be a contentious event because of the country’s treatment of minorities, including the LGBTQ+ community.
A bid by Australia would have been complicated by the short timeframe for a formal declaration of interest and the signing of a bidding agreement, which requires government support. FIFA has set tight deadlines for nations to formally express an interest in hosting the 2026 and 2030 events, which will occur 12 years after Qatar’s tournament.
Fifa has relaxed the criteria for countries seeking to host a future World Cup, saying they can now have as few as four stadiums proposed in their bid and that it will no longer require a complete feasibility study. However, it will demand that a bidder agree to meet its requirements for the human rights record of the hosting country.