In a turn of events that has left the sports world buzzing, Saudi Arabia is poised to host the men’s 2034 FIFA World Cup after Australia's soccer federation decided to withdraw from the bidding race.
The announcement came on October 31, 2023, leaving the oil-rich kingdom as the sole declared candidate for the prestigious event.
FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, confirmed Saudi Arabia's lone bid following Australia’s decision not to enter the competition.
As per reports by AP, the decision was widely seen as a maneuver by FIFA to favor Saudi Arabia, a nation known for its massive investments in the sports sector.
Football Australia, in a statement, explained their withdrawal, stating, “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.”
This leaves Saudi Arabia’s bid requiring only FIFA’s formal approval, expected to be a mere formality scheduled for late next year.
This development is not without controversy. Human rights activists have expressed their dismay, pointing out that this move exposes FIFA’s human rights commitments as nothing more than lip service.
Saudi Arabia has been under the scanner for its track record on women’s rights and the notorious 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s close ties with Saudi soccer and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have also been a subject of scrutiny. Critics argue that this relationship has played a significant role in steering FIFA’s competitions towards the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has indeed made strides in becoming a global sports hub, with investments that include bringing star soccer players to its domestic league, acquiring English soccer club Newcastle, launching the breakaway LIV Golf tour, and hosting major boxing events.
However, these investments are seen by many as an attempt at sportswashing, aimed at improving the nation's tarnished image.
FIFA has been urged to ensure that its human rights policies are adhered to, with Amnesty International official Steve Cockburn stating, “FIFA must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies.” He also emphasized that the bidding process should be halted if serious human rights risks are not adequately addressed.
As the world looks on, the 2034 World Cup hosting saga unfolds, bringing to the forefront crucial questions about the role of sports in diplomacy, the ethics of sportswashing, and the responsibility of international governing bodies like FIFA in upholding human rights standards.
Saudi Arabia’s preparations will undoubtedly be under intense scrutiny over the next decade. Only time will tell if the kingdom can rise to the occasion, ensuring not just a spectacular sporting event but also a commitment to human rights and social progress.
Graham Dunbar of the Associated Press reported the story on October 31, 2023. The developments have since sparked discussions and debates across various platforms, reflecting the global interest and impact of such major sporting events.