So that’s that then. Roll up, roll up, for the Saudi Arabia World Cup. It might not be what you wanted but, hey, whether you like it or not is almost irrelevant at this stage. It is happening, it is unshakeable, and it is futile to think anything can be done about it.
Welcome to the future. Or, maybe, welcome to the new norm, given everything we have learned over the past few years about Saudi Arabia’s desire to reinvent itself as the most lucrative, tills-ringing, all-dancing place to play football on the planet.
You can be disappointed, exasperated, angry even, but nobody should be too surprised by the announcement from FIFA that, with Australia pulling out, the 2034 competition will go to Saudi Arabia as the only bidders.
Already, Saudi Arabia has lined up the FIFA Club World Cup in December, the Spanish, Italian and Turkish Super Cups next year, as well as bidding for the 2035 Women’s World Cup. And that’s just a small part of it.
Add to that the multitude of “Riyadh Season” events, the world championship boxing, the UFC events, Formula One races, WWE nights, the Equestrian World Cup and some rather mind-boggling plans, ultimately, to put on 25 world championships in different sports.
Not forgetting the 2029 Asian Winter Games to be staged in a desert “megacity”, the $500billion (£412.1bn) Trojena, which has not yet been built and sounds like something from a James Bond film.
Against that kind of backdrop, a men’s World Cup is just a natural progression for a nation with a) extraordinary wealth and b) a formidable commitment to making itself, via the power of sport, more attractive to the outside world.
All of which conjures up a collection of different emotions for those of us who feel a bit uneasy about the way Saudi Arabia is going about it.
Resignation, mostly, because it always felt slightly inevitable that a nation with almost incalculable wealth would get its way. The rich often do in football, especially when FIFA is involved, and one important fact underpins everything: Saudi Arabia represents the super-rich.
A bit of helplessness, too, because there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it, no matter how many statements Human Rights Watch releases, how many executions Amnesty International tot up, how many journalists write impassioned pieces about it being morally wrong, how many people threaten to boycott.
What this decision confirms, more than anything, is that Saudi Arabia has been given its place at football’s top table. It was always going to happen at some point. Now, though, it feels official. Saudi Arabia is part of the club, no longer outsiders. They have done it in super-quick time and, naturally, that is just going to harden their desire to turn the Saudi Pro League into the place to be over the next decade or so.
More and more elite footballers will be getting the money-no-object call to join Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema et al. More and more agents will be getting filthy rich off the back of it. More and more, it will be the A-listers getting the invitation rather than, as it is now, those players who are a rung or two down, often coming towards the end of their playing careers.
More and more managers, too, if we remember that Roberto Mancini abandoned his job as Italy’s national-team manager before accepting the bags of gold on offer to take charge of Saudi Arabia’s equivalent.
All of which can seem rather alarming if you find it difficult to embrace a league where the crowds this season have been as low as 133 (that’s not a typo: you might be among more people attending a Bonfire party this weekend) and, even with an influx of foreign imports, the standard is poor to moderate. It all feels a bit of a turn-off: manufactured, plastic, tough to like for all sorts of reasons.
Jordan Henderson just played in front of 696 people – how small are Saudi Pro League crowds?
Yes, perhaps it is hypocritical for the Premier League to feel aggrieved given the number of years it has relied on its own wealth to position itself as Europe’s top division.
But there are some important differences here, too. Saudi Arabia is trying to reinvent itself as a sports tourism destination on an entirely different scale. It has embarked on this process almost from scratch, with no real sporting history and, despite its soaring temperatures, the processes involved can leave you cold.
However enthusiastically Al Ettifaq’s Jordan Henderson and assorted cheerleaders wave their pompoms, it is always going to be a political project based on money. Of course people are going to feel uncomfortable that “the beautiful game”, as some stubbornly like to call it, has gone this way.
As for the rest of it, at least there was a bit of light humour from the Twitter orchestra asking whether the World Cup final will be staged in Newcastle, an English city parading Saudi Arabia’s colours. But it is gallows humour, for the most part, when there are some horrific stories about the way the 2034 hosts operate, the rules and occasional brutalities.
“Barely a year after the human rights catastrophes of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, FIFA has failed to learn the lesson that awarding multi-billion dollar events without due diligence and transparency can risk corruption and major human rights abuses,” Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said last week.
“The possibility that FIFA could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup, despite its appalling human rights record and its closed door to any monitoring, exposes FIFA’s commitments to human rights as a sham.”
These all seem like legitimate points when, let’s face it, Saudi Arabia would be among the tournament favourites if there was a World Cup for sportswashing. At the last count, Amnesty International had reported more than 100 executions from January to October this year. And yet the football world chooses to look the other way.
“You can rest assured that everything (in 2034) will be structurally really good,” says Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe, a man employed by Saudi Arabia saying obediently nice things about Saudi Arabia.
The problem is this: what did anyone expect when FIFA’s recent history involves awarding Qatar the last World Cup and cosying up to Vladimir Putin, renowned man of the people, to give the 2018 tournament to Russia?
FIFA operates by its own rules and has done so for some time. It is not particularly interested in outside views and, when the criticism comes, the relevant people swat it away like a bothersome fly. It is an established pattern. More fool anyone who believes the people in power might choose a different set of priorities.
So, yes, Gianni Infantino and his FIFA colleagues will not care greatly if today’s news is not cheered around the world.
Nor do they seem particularly troubled that Morocco, awarded the 2030 tournament alongside Spain and Portugal, is another country where you can be persecuted for your sexuality.
Again, the world’s biggest sporting event has been awarded to a nation that must seem hostile, unwelcoming and hard-faced, to say the least, for any LGBTQ+ football fans.
It is amazing to think, in a supposedly progressive world, that this has been an issue in the last two World Cups and will continue to be in two of the next three.
To refer to a tweet from The Athletic’s Adam Crafton earlier today: “I’m going to turn 40 in 2034. Some people have big parties but now I know I’m going to spend it being told I’m *actually* the one discriminating for pointing out it’s not very nice to criminalise gay people in Saudi Arabia.”
I’m going to turn 40 in 2034. Some people have big parties but now I know I’m going to spend it being told I’m *actually* the one discriminating for pointing out it’s not very nice to criminalise gay people in Saudi Arabia.
— Adam Crafton (@AdamCrafton_) October 31, 2023
At FIFA, however, the bigwigs know they can ride it out. For all the heat they took about Qatar, they still managed to project it as the greatest tournament there has ever been.
They will enjoy the view from their VVIP seats in 2034, smiling into the cameras, clinking glasses and congratulating themselves on reminding everyone that it is possible to host a World Cup in the winter.
Saudi Arabia will have 11 years to prepare and all sorts of experience when it comes to putting on global events. And, by then, it will not feel so new, or perhaps quite so strange, to think of the biggest nation in the Middle East as a superpower in the world of sport.
It will be the norm, not the exception. And if you don’t like it, that’s tough. At this point, there is nothing left but getting used to the idea that Saudi Arabia has won and that it won’t just stop here, either.
(Top photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Kingdom Council/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)