Saudi Arabia: FIFA is setting the course for the next desert World Cup


Sportswashing The next desert World Cup: Saudi Arabia’s big plan is working

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman celebrates his country’s victory over Argentina at the 2022 World Cup, with Fifa President Gianni Infantino next to him

© Action Pictures / Imago Images

by Luca Wolpers

06.10.2023, 20:13

4 Min.

With the 2030 FIFA World Cup awarded to three different continents, Saudi Arabia is almost certain as the venue for the tournament four years later. Fifa President Gianni Infantino is Saudi Arabia’s henchman on the way to the top level in football.

The awarding of the 2030 World Cup to Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay made some football fans breathe a sigh of relief. Sure: a World Cup in six countries spread across three continents is questionable from many points of view. However, the outcry would have been much greater if – as many had feared – Saudi Arabia had been awarded the contract to host the tournament. But there was no reason to give the all-clear – the desert state announced its application for the 2034 World Cup a little later. So Saudi Arabia’s attack on world football has not been stopped, just postponed.

The likelihood that the world’s largest football tournament will be played in the Gulf state in 2034 has increased significantly with the award being given to Spain, Argentina and Co. The 2026 and 2030 World Cups will now cover four continents: North America, Europe, Africa and South America. According to FIFA’s rotation principle, only representatives from Oceania and Asia are allowed to apply for 2034. Fifa around boss Gianni Infantino has thus kept the hurdles for the Gulf state to a minimum. Pretty transparent, but Infantino doesn’t seem to care. Saudi Arabia’s investment plan could work.

Sport is supposed to distract from executions

Under the name “Saudi Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia wants to become more independent of its valuable oil reserves and expand other sectors of the economy. In addition to culture and tourism, massive investments should be made in sport. The extensive media attention that such a sporting event brings distracts attention from the image-damaging circumstances in the country.

According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest execution rates in the world. In 2022, 196 people were executed there, the highest rate in the country in 30 years. Women and members of the LGBTQ community experience discrimination. The undesirable Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi is said to have been murdered on government orders in 2018. The country ranks 170th in the press freedom rankings.

All of this is supposed to be pushed into the background through the power of sport and the bad image is washed away – “sportswashing” for short. Saudi Arabia has already established itself successfully in other sports. Boxing superstars like Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua have already fought in the desert state. In addition, the US, Saudi and European golf tours announced that they would form a joint entity. In 2029, Saudi Arabia wants to host the Asian Winter Games on artificial snow.

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Football stars promote Saudi Arabia

This year, the Saudi investment plan has particularly targeted football. The state fund PIF (Public Investment Fund) bought 75 percent of the local clubs Al-Ittihad, Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr in order to make the Saudi Pro League more attractive for top European players. With success – Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Neymar and Sadio Mané have been playing in the Gulf state since this summer.

They were lured with money from the state fund. Neymar’s annual salary at Al-Hilal is 100 million euros, Benzema (Al-Ittihad) and Ronaldo (Al-Nassr) earn around 200 million annually. The state fund is there: its total volume is said to be around 650 billion US dollars. In return for their wages, the footballers should advertise the country. Lionel Messi plays in Miami, but has long been the official ambassador of Saudi Arabia. The superstar posted pictures of the country on Instagram with the hashtag “VisitSaudi”.

Their own league is not enough for the Saudis. In 2021, the state fund bought the Premier League club Newcastle United for $373 million. While Newcastle were used to being mid-table in the league before the purchase, they now impressively defeated Paris Saint-Germain 4-1 in the Champions League. Many fans hardly cared about the human rights violations in the country of the club’s owners. Some even dressed up as sheikhs and waved the Saudi national flag.

Kick It Like Qatar

Newcastle United is the prime example of Saudi Arabia’s strategy. Money leads to success and that seems to lead to largely uncritical acceptance of Saudi Arabia in world football. They are relying on the same effect that rival Qatar achieved with the 2022 World Cup. A spectacular final is enough for many football fans around the world to talk about the best World Cup of all time and to forget all the criticism in the run-up to the tournament.

Saudi Arabia is now pursuing the same plan for 2034. Many of the grievances in Saudi Arabia are similar to those in Qatar. The so-called Kafala system also applies there, which makes workers dependent on their employers. Companies decide on job changes or whether and when employees are allowed to visit their families. In addition, a World Cup in Saudi Arabia would have to take place in the winter, like in Qatar. In the Saudi summer, athletes would not only be unable to perform but also unable to survive in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius.

With the Fifa Club World Cup this winter there is already a foretaste of what could come. Saudi Arabia has also already secured the 2027 Asian Championship. A large part of the football world is satisfied with the awarding of the 2030 World Cup to three continents and nothing stands in the way of completing FIFA and Saudi Arabia’s big plan.

Sources: “Spiegel”, “Tagesschau”, “Frankfurter Rundschau”, “NDR”, “Sportschau”, “Manager Magazin”, “Spox”, “Augsburger Allgemeine”



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