Less than a month after throwing its hat in the ring to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia is set to stage the marquee event by being the lone bidder after Australia, the only other potential bidder, dropped out of the race.
The right to host football’s greatest show is another feather in the cap of a country which, under its 38-year-old de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been investing heavily in sporting projects in recent years. Be it splurging vast sums of money to rope in Europe’s top footballers for the Saudi Pro League, the takeover of English club Newcastle United or financing the LIV Golf venture, the world’s biggest oil exporter is making a concerted effort to be viewed as a global sporting hub.
Critics in the West may label it as sportswashing — a similar criticism was levelled at Qatar when it hosted the 2022 World Cup — but the FIFA World Cup travelling to newer territories can only be good for the beautiful game: It would help the rise of football in Asia, which has hosted only two — South Korea/Japan in 2002 and Qatar in 2022 — of the 22 World Cups.
With the 2026 tournament set to be hosted by the US, Canada and Mexico, and the subsequent edition in 2030 slated for Spain, Morocco and Portugal with South American involvement, the Asian and Oceanian confederations were eligible only for the 2034 Cup, owing to FIFA’s rotation policy. As for Riyadh, staging the prestigious event will aid the rebranding of a nation that is currently undergoing diverse economic reforms and slowly liberalising its conservative social norms.
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