Saudi Arabia emerged as the likely winner in the abbreviated race to host soccer’s World Cup in 2034 on Tuesday after Australia’s soccer federation announced that it would not bid for the tournament. The decision most likely removed the only hurdle in the way of Saudi Arabia’s plan to bring the world’s most-watched sporting event back to the Gulf.
Australia announced its decision hours before a deadline set by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, for nations to express an interest in hosting the World Cup. Saudi Arabia made clear its intent to bid weeks ago, and FIFA’s rules — and powerful allies — have all but assured that the kingdom will prevail.
In a sudden and surprising move earlier this month, FIFA announced a truncated bidding timeline for the 2034 tournament, telling interested nations that they had only 25 days to formally express their interest and provide extensive declarations of government backing for a 48-team, multicity event that usually requires billions of dollars and years of planning.
The decision to shorten that timeline to only a matter of weeks was made public on the same day that FIFA formally announced its 2030 World Cup would be shared by countries in Europe, Africa and South America. Soccer federations only found out about the possibility a week before the decision was confirmed.
FIFA’s move to speed up the bidding for 2034 surprised many, coming 11 years before the scheduled start of the tournament and a full three years before the 2034 host was supposed to be decided. FIFA also said only bidders from Asia and Oceania, two of soccer’s six regional confederations, could be considered for selection.
Saudi Arabia, which had for years been public about its desire to host the World Cup, moved fast to secure the tournament after FIFA set the rules this month. Its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared the kingdom’s intent to bid within minutes of FIFA’s announcement of the official timeline, and within hours the Saudis had received the backing of Asian soccer’s top leader, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain, who announced that “the entire Asian football family” — a group that includes Australia — would “stand united in support” of the Saudi bid.
In the face of that support, Australian officials concluded they would have been overmatched if they challenged Saudi Arabia to secure the votes of the majority of FIFA’s 211 federations. Saudi Arabia has signed agreements in the past year with scores of FIFA’s member nations, committing millions of dollars to projects across Asia and lavishing attention on Africa, where it signed an agreement with the regional governing body and sponsored a new tournament.
Its courtship of soccer leaders has ranged from the high profile to the personal: At an event for soccer officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, earlier this month, for example, organizers made it known that the Saudi Arabian soccer federation would be picking up the daily laundry tab for delegates.
With little hope of countering the Saudis’ influence and public support, the Australian federation announced it was dropping out and would instead pursue other events.
“We wish FIFA and the eventual hosts of the FIFA World Cup 2034 the greatest success for the good of the game and for everyone who loves our sport,” the Australian federation said in a statement on its website.
Saudi Arabia has in just a few years grown from an international backwater in sports to one of its major players, using its vast oil wealth to bring top stars to play in its cash-drenched soccer league; secure the biggest fights in boxing; and strike a deal to effectively seize control of global golf. All of the investments are viewed are part of a broader plan to alter perceptions of the kingdom on the global stage, and diversify its economy away from oil.
But inviting the World Cup — and the scrutiny it brings — would be among its boldest ventures yet.
Its neighbor Qatar spent more than a decade in the global spotlight after winning the hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup, becoming the first Arab and Muslim country to stage the event.
That tournament was not without controversy. For years, the buildup was marked by criticism of the tiny gas-rich state’s treatment of the millions of migrant laborers required to remake the country ahead of the World Cup. Saudi Arabia, while far more established on the world stage than Qatar was, is certain to face similar scrutiny.
Human rights groups wasted little time in criticizing FIFA. Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said FIFA had announced as long ago as 2016 that “human rights due diligence would be conducted in advance of future World Cups.”
“FIFA has effectively eliminated any pressure for Saudi Arabia and M.B.S. to implement human rights reforms, squandering the leverage for labor, press freedom, and civil society protections that exists because Saudi Arabia desperately wants to host the World Cup,” Ms. Worden said in an email.
Yet FIFA’s bid requirements were such that they almost matched Saudi Arabia’s current state of readiness. A requirement that bidding nations for the 2034 World Cup should already have a minimum of seven tournament-appropriate stadiums was reduced to four, the exact number available in Saudi Arabia.
Should Saudi Arabia emerge as the only bidder in FIFA’s fast-tracked process, it also would avoid the type of high-stakes bidding race that mired the organization in reputation-shredding corruption claims in 2010, when it run concurrent races for the 2018 and 2022 events, which were secured by Russia and Qatar.
Australia, one of the losing bidders then, had spent more than $30 million in largely public money and secured only one vote, an outcome that scarred the soccer and political officials involved. Memories of that bitter and expensive failure led to the decision to walk away this time.