Saudi Arabia 2034: The secretive end of FIFA World Cup bidding as we know it

Soccer Football - World Cup - Group A - Russia vs Saudi Arabia - Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow, Russia - June 14, 2018   FIFA President Gianni Infantino with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud   REUTERS/Christian Hartmann
FIFA president Gianni Infantino embraces Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on June 14, 2018, during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (Reuters/Christian Hartmann) (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

Some of the 211 soccer officials responsible for picking World Cup hosts awoke on the morning of Oct. 4 unaware that decisions had been made for them. Bidding for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups, after all, had not yet formally opened. Discussions related to the two tournaments had accelerated, but entirely behind the scenes, brokered by a select few powerful men at the head of governing bodies.

So the announcement later that day caught many by surprise, according to reports and multiple well-connected soccer officials.

The 2030 World Cup, FIFA declared, would be played in Spain, Portugal and Morocco, with three opening games in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay.

And the 2034 tournament would be played in Asia — whose soccer confederation promptly endorsed Saudi Arabia, whose government, exactly 65 minutes after FIFA’s news release, announced a “comprehensive plan” to bid.

It was, at best, in the words of one longtime sports executive, “quite an elegant solution”; and at worst a poorly disguised plot to gift a World Cup to FIFA’s most eager ally. Requirements and sudden deadlines all but ruled out competitors for 2034. And over the coming weeks, as Australia pondered a bid, and Indonesia talked up a long-shot candidacy, FIFA president Gianni Infantino attempted to dissuade them. Speaking to the presidents of all Asian soccer federations, including Australia’s, he urged them to be “united for the 2034 World Cup.” His “dear friend and brother Sheikh Salman,” the Bahraini royal who leads the Asian confederation, soon echoed Infantino and explicitly called for unanimous support for Saudi Arabia. National federations fell in line, proposing resolutions to back the Saudis. Even Indonesia’s soccer president, Erick Thohir, backed off his country’s mooted bid and wrote in a short statement: "Indonesia supports Saudi Arabia as host of the 2034 World Cup.” Two weeks later, Australia pulled out, leaving Saudi Arabia as the only bidder. Infantino soon confirmed that the Gulf Kingdom will host the 2034 tournament.

So the decisions, approved by the 37-member FIFA Council, have been made long before they go up for vote at FIFA’s 211-member Congress. They circumvented FIFA’s own rules, which were adopted last decade in part to combat corruption. They were swiftly criticized by a coalition of rights organizations. And to a skeptical public, the opacity of the process was appalling. It reeked of autocracy, and seemed like a regressive move away from the “true democracy” that Infantino once promised FIFA would become.

But to insiders, it felt like a move toward the future, and perhaps the end of mega-event bidding as we know it. The International Olympic Committee, after decades of regimented bids and high-profile votes, recently introduced a host selection process that instead relies on murky “dialogue,” and places the future of the Games in the hands of executives rather than members. FIFA, it seems, is heading down the same path.

“Maybe it’s an appropriate time to re-look at how we do it,” Victor Montagliani, the president of CONCACAF and a FIFA vice president, told the “Sport Unlocked” podcast earlier this month. He spoke of a need to make the process “a lot more corporate, with the right due diligence. And, by the way, even though it’s an executive decision in a smaller body like the FIFA Council … it needs to be transparent.”

FILE - FIFA President Gianni Infantino, right, walks with Minister for State Owned Enterprises Erick Thohir upon arrival for a meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo at Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. Indonesian soccer federation leader Erick Thohir says it now supports Saudi Arabia's bid to host the 2034 World Cup. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File)
Indonesian soccer federation leader Erick Thohir (L) says it now supports Saudi Arabia's bid to host the 2034 World Cup. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The autocratization of World Cup bidding

In the shadow of scandal back in 2016, Infantino ran for FIFA president on a platform of “reforms and good governance” and “democracy and participation.” But it was his disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter, who’d already democratized the men’s World Cup host selection process. FIFA’s previous system had been exploited in 2010 (and before), when its 24-person Executive Committee chose Russia and Qatar to host in 2018 and 2022. The exclusive, secretive nature of the vote allowed for alleged bribery. As those allegations began to rage, in 2011, the FIFA Congress approved Blatter’s plan to take future decisions out of the ExCo’s hands, and bring them to the full membership.

Infantino seemed to support that change and more as he campaigned for the presidency, shortly after Blatter resigned amid a sprawling U.S. Justice Department investigation. “A fully transparent bidding process for the FIFA World Cup shall be implemented,” Infantino wrote in his manifesto. He went on to propose “detailed bid regulations and bid requirements,” plus “a Code of Conduct” that would “ensure a level playing-field and help to avoid conflicts of interest and any suspicion of corruption.” He envisioned a thorough process whereby FIFA staffers would assess bids, the Council — essentially an expanded ExCo comprising several elected soccer officials from each region — would present qualified bids to the broader Congress, and the Congress would make a “final decision.”

Not long after he won the February 2016 election, Infantino oversaw what he’d envisioned. The race to stage the 2026 World Cup, between North America and Morocco, was governed by strict rules and procedures. Bid committees, for example, had to produce written reports documenting every single meeting with a potential voter and any other “promotional activities” involving their members, consultants or politicians. The North American “United Bid” hired a third-party compliance agency “to record every meeting that took place,” according to John Kristick, the United Bid’s executive director. All of it was “an arduous task,” Kristick recalled in a phone interview, but necessary to safeguard the process.

Similar rigor now appears to govern the 2027 Women’s World Cup process, and was expected to apply to 2030 and 2034. Article 68, Paragraph 2 of FIFA’s statutes requires that, after establishing “a fair and transparent bidding procedure, inviting all qualified member associations to submit a bid,” the FIFA Council shall submit “up to three bids … to the Congress,” which, via public vote, “shall select the host venue from the bids designated by the Council.”

Instead, in June 2023, with multiple joint bids ready and waiting, FIFA postponed the launch of the 2030 process “to ensure additional consultation with all key stakeholders.”

The delay, it seems, allowed Infantino and others to hash out a clever compromise: In exchange for three celebratory openers, South American soccer president Alejandro Dominguez agreed to concede the 2030 race to Spain-Portugal-Morocco; and concede the right to bid for 2034, which, conveniently, could be delivered to Saudi Arabia via Asian politicking and the “principle” of continental rotation.

It’s not clear how, exactly, the compromise was reached, nor who hatched the plan, nor why the 2034 process was abruptly accelerated. FIFA has not answered those questions. Negotiations occurred behind closed doors. The arrangements had been discussed “on confederation level” over the summer, multiple people with indirect knowledge of the talks told Yahoo Sports, meaning leaders of soccer’s six continental governing bodies were involved. But beyond them and Infantino, the extent of the “consultation” has been shrouded in secrecy. Even soccer officials in Chile, who’d been centrally involved in the South American 2030 bid, were excluded.

What’s clear is that the democratic process has eroded. World Cup hosts, like Olympic hosts, are now being chosen by top officials in a more controlled, strategic manner. “The awarding of major events is moving toward some kind of dialogue process,” says Lars Haue-Pederson, managing director of BCW Sports, a leading bid consultancy. “If you want to be negative, it's less open; if you want to be positive, it's less random.”

“This approach intends to provide harmony and rotation between confederations,” FIFA wrote after its recent decisions. “It is also consistent with the approach recently adopted by several other international governing bodies, providing certainty and stability from a commercial, financial and operational perspective for FIFA’s flagship competition.”

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Saudi Arabia Fan Zone - Doha, Qatar - November 26, 2022 Saudi Arabia fans during the match between Poland and Saudi Arabia REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari
Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Saudi Arabia Fan Zone - Doha, Qatar - November 26, 2022 Saudi Arabia fans during the match between Poland and Saudi Arabia. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Al Omari) (Ibrahem Alomari / reuters)

No transparency, no losers: FIFA follows IOC playbook

The approach, in a way, can be traced to 2017, when IOC president Thomas Bach welcomed the mayors of Paris and Los Angeles to Lausanne, Switzerland. Both glamorous cities had been pushing for the 2024 Olympics, jockeying for votes and grinding through the IOC’s meticulous process. Bach, aware that his Games had become increasingly unpopular among potential hosts, didn’t want to lose another old reliable.

The Olympics had been losing at an alarming rate in recent years. Citizens, attuned to the Games’ true costs, had been voting against the opportunity to host them. Withdrawals left the IOC with only two unsavory options for the 2022 Winter Games: Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Similar concerns and public referendums foiled 2024 Summer bids from Boston; Hamburg, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; and Rome.

So Bach negotiated a tripartite agreement with the two remaining bidders — Paris would host in 2024, LA in 2028. Then, over the next two years, as more withdrawals marred the 2026 Winter race, the IOC set out to overhaul its host selection process for good. It codified flexibility to protect against future uncertainty or embarrassment. "We cannot, I suggest, continue to be damaged as we have in the past," veteran IOC official John Coates said in 2019.

Coates led a working group that refined the overhaul — which spotlighted prior flaws. The IOC’s traditional system had followed rigid timelines and required bidding cities to meet specific benchmarks. It then became a “beauty pageant,” says Terrence Burns, a longtime bid strategist, with each city preparing an elaborate pitch to woo the IOC’s 100-some members. “The bid books used to be referred to as some of the world's greatest fiction,” says Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing chief. The campaigns were also expensive, and often yielded humiliation. In 2009, then-U.S. President Barack Obama flew to Copenhagen to support Chicago’s 2016 bid — which was promptly eliminated in the first round of voting, beaten by Rio de Janeiro, Madrid and Tokyo.

“It is not the purpose of an Olympic candidate city procedure to produce losers,” Bach said years later. “It is to produce the best possible host for an Olympic Games. We will have to look into this.”

In 2019, the IOC ratified its new procedure. A small group of IOC members and other sports officials, reporting to the IOC executive board, now engages potential hosts in continuous “dialogue.” They evaluate and help shape the cities’ proposals. The fluid nature of the dialogue allows Bach and the board to choose their “preferred partner” whenever they want, for whatever reasons. Once they’ve done so, they nominate the city, and the IOC’s members rubber-stamp it with a yay-or-nay, single-choice vote.

This, essentially, is the blueprint that FIFA has followed — albeit without amending a single statute or spelling out its process — and therein lies the main criticism. Without true transparency, the system can be abused.

Montagliani seemed to implicitly acknowledge this shortcoming as he advocated for a fresh approach to World Cup host selection. “It can’t just be, ‘We’re picking so and so,’” he said on Sport Unlocked. “It needs to be completely transparent why you’re doing it, who did it, and ensuring that the standards have been met from a due diligence perspective. Because an asset as big as the FIFA men’s World Cup — and quite frankly what the women’s World Cup is now, which is a massive asset as well, and growing — requires proper procedures, proper governance, and ensuring that it goes in the proper locations.”

Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Poland v Saudi Arabia - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - November 26, 2022 A Saudi Arabia fan with a replica World Cup trophy inside the stadium before the match REUTERS/Matthew Childs     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Soccer Football - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group C - Poland v Saudi Arabia - Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar - November 26, 2022 A Saudi Arabia fan with a replica World Cup trophy inside the stadium before the match. (REUTERS/Matthew Childs) (Matthew Childs / reuters)

Evolution of host selection: A more professional approach?

The IOC’s first “dialogue” decision was hounded by skepticism. In 2021, Brisbane, Australia, won the right to host the 2032 Summer Games. “No one really quite understood how that decision was made, and on what basis, who else were they talking to,” Burns says.

“Many people, even cities that were thinking about bidding one day, did not know,” Haue-Pederson says. “They were caught a little by surprise.”

One German politician lamented that the process could “hardly be surpassed in terms of non-transparency.” An athlete rep added that, “if the process is incomprehensible, then distrust and suspicion of arbitrary decisions arise.” There were questions, for example, about whether the Games had been awarded to Brisbane on merit, or whether they’d simply been gifted to the man who helped design this new process: Coates, an IOC VP and the president of the Australian Olympic Committee.

There are now similar questions about Infantino’s cozy relationship with Saudi authorities, his role in the Kingdom’s imminent victory, and more. FIFA’s decisions, of course, could have been made because the entire Council believes that the three-continent arrangement in 2030 and a Saudi World Cup in 2034 will be best for soccer. But they also could have been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s willingness to sponsor FIFA competitions, to officially propose Infantino’s revolutionary ideas, and to pour money into the sport. Over the past year, as its domestic league bought superstars, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation began signingmemorandums of understanding” with other national soccer federations, mostly throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, explicitly to further football development — and, perhaps, implicitly to curry favor with officials who’d someday vote on their World Cup bid. (These, of course, were the types of relationships and meetings that were scrutinized and policed by strict “rules of conduct” in the 2026 bidding race; but no official race for 2030 or 2034 had yet been launched.)

So, questions will linger about the path that led to 2030 and 2034. But even some plugged-in observers asking those questions believe that this sudden evolution of the host selection process is rational, especially in an era when complex Games and 48-team World Cups are increasingly difficult for cities, countries and even regions to accommodate. It allows for creativity and reasoned decisions made by the FIFA executives most qualified to make them, rather than relying on the whims of members, many of whom aren’t intimately invested in the World Cup’s inner-workings.

“It’s the biggest asset that pays all the FIFA Forward [grant] money to all the countries,” Montagliani said. “The fact that, for instance, the FIFA general secretary and the FIFA president doesn’t have a vote — that would never happen in any corporate environment, where the CEO and the chairman of an organization has absolutely nothing to say about your biggest financial asset. I think, if we’re really going to look at proper governance, we might want to take a page from the corporate world and see, maybe, is there a better, more efficient way [to pick hosts]?”

He added that “the women’s World Cup would really benefit from that strategic long-term planning.” There have even been subtle hints that the 2027 and/or 2031 editions could be awarded in line with this new approach. There are four candidates for 2027, including two, South Africa or Brazil, that would bring the game to underserved regions. A third, the U.S.-Mexico joint bid, would shatter commercial records — and likely could be repurposed for 2031, not unlike Saudi 2034, the 2028 L.A. Olympics or the likely 2034 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

For now, traditional bidding regulations remain in place. At FIFA, no changes have been formalized. But like at the IOC years earlier, a shift appears to be underway.

“They are being more thoughtful, and professional, in how they assess and select future host cities and nations, realizing that that decision will have a huge impact on the tournament or the Games' commercial appeal and/or fan appeal,” says Burns, who has advised several World Cup and Olympic bids. “That's a good thing.”