Saudi Arabia is close to securing the right to host the 2034 World Cup with FIFA having confirmed that the kingdom is the only nation to have submitted a declaration of interest ahead of its deadline on Tuesday.
The path is also clear for the sextet of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay to host the tournament four years earlier, the latter three South American nations to host a game each in celebration of the World Cup's 100th anniversary. Their selection had long been inevitable, as had Saudi Arabia from the moment FIFA announced an expedited process even as Australia mulled a bid that they confirmed on Tuesday morning would not be proceeding.
Both bids must still undergo what world football's governing body terms "a targeted dialogue with bidders." one that will "focus on the defined priority areas of the event vision and key metrics, infrastructure, services, commercial, and sustainability and human rights." Human rights organizations are urging FIFA to use this period to extract commitments from all parties but in particular Saudi Arabia, long criticized for its human rights record.
Australia had been viewed as a potential rival to Saudi Arabia, albeit one that seemed destined to fail, but on Tuesday morning their federation (FA) said they would not enter the race, concluding that they did not have any realistic chance of securing a tournament that has long seemed destined for the Middle East.
An FA statement released a few hours before FIFA's deadline said, "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."
FA noted their interest in hosting the 2026 Asia Cup and 2029 Club World Cup in an announcement that reaffirmed its qualities as a host of major sporting events. They said: "For international tournament hosting, the Australian time zones provide significant opportunities for broadcasters, and we are within touching distance of billions of people in Asia and Oceania, which also helps to provide a strong commercial outlook for competitions."
However, any proposal from Australia would have faced an almighty battle to win the 2034 World Cup, which is only available to nations in Asia and Oceania. Saudi Arabia's football federation has said it has the backing of over 100 of FIFA's 211 members, who would vote on the bids should a second nation declare its interest.
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Saudi Arabia had declared itself a contender for 2034 mere hours after FIFA announced an expedited process for awarding the tournament. With the 2026 World Cup due to take place in North America and six nations from South America, Africa and Europe hosting games four years later, only a handful of nations were both eligible and realistically able to host a competition that will likely host 48 teams and draw millions of visitors.
A Saudi World Cup is likely to be a hugely contentious event given the country's record on human rights. The Sports and Rights Alliance, a grouping of NGOs and trade unions, is calling for FIFA to extract commitments to improve their records from prospective hosts of the tournament. "With only a single bid for each tournament on the table, FIFA may have scored an own goal. FIFA must now make clear how it expects hosts to comply with its human rights policies. It must also be prepared to halt the bidding process if serious human rights risks are not credibly addressed," said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International's Head of Economic and Social Justice.
"The best chance for FIFA to obtain binding guarantees to protect workers' rights, ensure freedom of expression and prevent discrimination linked to the World Cup is during the host selection process - not after the hosts have been confirmed and tournament preparation has begun. Human rights commitments must be agreed with potential hosts before final decisions on holding the tournaments are made."
The nation has invested significantly in football over the last year, signing high profile players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Sadio Mane to play in its Pro League. Saudi Arabia have not indicated whether they would propose to host the tournament in the European winter months, as Qatar did in 2022, but given that temperatures in the capital Riyadh hit an average of 97 degrees in July and August it seems inevitable that it would have to be scheduled for later in the year.