In the fall of 2020, amid the global upheaval caused by the coronavirus, FIFA President Gianni Infantino met with Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, in Rome. While discussing soccer’s recovery from the pandemic, Infantino, without public mention, advocated for Saudi Arabia’s bid to host the 2030 World Cup, seeking a European partner. However, Italy’s strained relations with Egypt and concerns over Saudi Arabia’s role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi made the partnership politically unfeasible. Italy declined the proposal.
Three years later, on October 31, FIFA surprisingly confirmed Saudi Arabia as the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup. Infantino hinted at the kingdom’s hosting status, prompting speculation about his motives. Critics in soccer question whether Infantino prioritizes FIFA’s interests or those of Saudi Arabia, a wealthy partner wielding influence in the sport.
FIFA, responding through a spokesman, denied any impropriety and emphasized the open and transparent bidding process for the World Cup. However, the expedited and secretive handling of hosting rights for the 2030 and 2034 tournaments has sparked criticism of FIFA’s governance. The decisions appear centralized among top executives, led by Infantino, and then approved by a compliant governing council.
Saudi Arabia’s ambition to host the World Cup aligned with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman‘s efforts to showcase a modern and open image. Infantino, seeking capital for legacy-defining events, supported Saudi initiatives, including advocating for hosting the World Cup every two years. Despite initial failures, the relationship between Infantino and Saudi Arabia grew closer, raising concerns about the president’s objectivity.
Infantino engaged in private diplomacy to advance Saudi Arabia’s World Cup bid, approaching Greece after Italy’s refusal. The plan shifted when Morocco joined forces with Spain and Portugal for the 2030 bid. FIFA’s decisions, including playing World Cup centenary games in South America, seemingly favored Saudi Arabia for the 2034 tournament bidding.
The bid process for the 2034 World Cup was expedited, limiting potential challengers and favoring Saudi Arabia. Despite Infantino claiming widespread consultation, some soccer officials expressed surprise at the abrupt changes. Saudi Arabia swiftly announced its bid, receiving immediate support from Asian soccer officials.
Critics argue that Infantino’s actions raise questions about FIFA’s governance, emphasizing the need for transparency and ethical reforms. The concerns center on whether personal relationships are influencing decisions over the growth and values of the game.