How FIFA handed Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup | ET REALITY

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As the world reeled from the coronavirus crisis in the fall of 2020, the president of soccer’s world governing body, Gianni Infantino, headed to Rome for an audience with Italy’s prime minister.

Wearing masks and bumping elbows, Infantino, FIFA president and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte greeted each other in front of journalists before disappearing with the president of the Italian soccer federation into one of the ornate state halls on the 16th. Palazzo Chigi from the 19th century, official residence of the Italian leader.

Infantino explained after who had spoken about football’s path to recovery from pandemic closures. He didn’t mention the other urgent matter he had come to discuss.

Away from the television cameras, Infantino surprised Italians by revealing himself as a promoter of Saudi Arabia’s effort to organize soccer’s most important championship, the World Cup. Saudi Arabia had already secured Egypt’s backing, the FIFA president told Italian officials, and was now looking for a European partner for what would be a unique tournament held on three continents in 2030. Italy, he said, could be that partner.

Conte listened politely, but would have known that such a partnership was politically impossible: Italy had strained relations with Egypt over the brutal murder of a young Italian graduate student in Cairo in 2016, and unrest persisted across Europe over the Saudi role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Italian reaction to Infantino’s suggestion was at first “cautious and within hours negative,” said Pietro Benassi, who was the prime minister’s top diplomatic adviser. The country said no.

Three years later, Saudi Arabia would get its prize anyway. On October 31, after an accelerated process that took its own members by surprise, FIFA confirmed that Saudi Arabia was the only candidate for the 2034 World Cup. Within hours, Infantino hinted in a social media post that his status as host was a fact and other Gulf rulers He hailed it as “Arab victory”, despite the fact that the official vote was almost a year away.

For many in football, Infantino’s defense of Saudi Arabia was nothing new. In the years since his visit to Rome, he had also proposed to Greece the idea of ​​co-hosting the Saudis; he defended multibillion-dollar Saudi investments in soccer; and he helped push through rule changes that all but ensured the kingdom would end the World Cup.

Their efforts were not clandestine. But they have left many in football concerned about Infantino’s motivations and wondering whether he is using his position to prioritize the interests of FIFA or those of a friendly partner who has been leveraging his wealth to exert influence in the sport. .

“How can we control that the growth of the game and the values ​​of the game are what lead the way and not personal relationships?” said Lise Klaveness, president of the Norwegian football federation and critic of FIFA’s governance.

FIFA, through a spokesperson, responded to questions about Infantino’s actions on behalf of the president and said nothing improper had been done to ensure the World Cup went to the preferred candidate. “The selection of venues for the FIFA World Cup is carried out through an open and transparent bidding process,” the spokesperson said, adding that Infantino had not “provoked or initiated” discussions about Saudi Arabia’s bid with partners. potentials.

Still, the speed and secrecy with which FIFA handled the organizing rights of the 2030 and 2034 tournaments has generated new criticism of the way football is governed and how the organization’s most consequential decisions are now made. a small group of senior executives, led by Infantino, and was then approved by a docile government council.

“What is incredible is that this is the new FIFA,” said Miguel Maduro, the first head of government appointed by Infantino amid promises of transparency and ethics reforms. “However, they are basically going back to the same old way of awarding World Cups.”

Saudi Arabia has never hidden its desire to host one. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi state has given sport a prominent role in efforts to project a new image of the country: vibrant, modern and open. Billions have been spent on boxing matches, Formula 1 car racing, the LIV Golf tour and, most recently, to attract some of the world’s most famous soccer stars to Saudi Arabia’s national league.

But the biggest prize was always the World Cup. And in Infantino, Saudi Arabia found an enthusiastic ally. In many ways, the kingdom’s ambitions dovetailed with his own as he sought to create new events and projects that would define his legacy, all of which would require significant injections of new capital.

In 2018, for example, Infantino surprised FIFA board members by demanding permission to close a deal for new competitions with investors whose identity he refused to reveal. (After the deal collapsed, it emerged that the group behind the bid, SoftBank, counted Saudi Arabia among its biggest backers.) Three years later, Infantino angered many in football by saying that FIFA would study a proposal, offered by the Saudi Arabian federation. — Hold the World Cup every two years. (The unpopular concept was shelved after a furious response.)

Despite these failures, the relationship between Infantino and Saudi Arabia only grew closer. He has frequently promoted his events. in social mediaand in 2021 he starred a video released by his sports ministry. In August 2022, he and Prince Mohammed shared a suite at a boxing match in Jeddah. Months later, the FIFA president returned the favor in the opening match of the Qatar World Cup. Last month, the men were photographed sitting next to each other at yet another event in Riyadh.

“Their goal is to send a message,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, a rights group. “It’s like a visual symbol of putting your thumb on the scale.”

At the same time, Infantino was also engaging in private diplomacy that benefited Saudi Arabia’s World Cup ambitions.

After Italy stopped partnering for a World Cup bid, Saudi Arabia approached Greece with the offer, and Infantino discussed the idea with the Greek prime minister. on the sidelines of a UN meeting in September 2021. But that idea was retired after Morocco joined forces with Spain and Portugal in a potentially unbeatable bid for the 2030 World Cup.

Instead, Saudi Arabia changed its approach. Realizing that the Spain-Portugal-Morocco proposal would likely succeed against an unlikely bid from four South American nations, the Saudis realized they could benefit from FIFA rules that would ban European countries and Africa compete for the 2034 tournament when the bidding process began. .

Then FIFA made two more curious moves.

The first three matches of the 2030 World Cup, he suddenly announced, would be played in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay in celebration of the World Cup centenary. (The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930). That included South America in the Portugal-Spain-Morocco bid, and eliminated yet another continent from eligible 2034 bidders.

But with the 2030 hosts decided, FIFA unexpectedly said it would bring forward the bidding process for the 2034 tournament by at least three years, limiting the countries that could bid in a way that favored the Saudi bid, and planning to complete it as soon as possible. For most countries it represented an impossible timeline: interested nations were given just 25 days to express their intention, and only a few more weeks to submit official offers, which typically require significant government backing.

Infantino said there was “widespread consultation” about the decision. But Klaveness, Norway’s federation president, said she only found out about it when the official press release was published, and Australian Football’s chief executive said the changes “came a little bit by surprise.”

Among those who are not surprised? Saudi Arabia. Within minutes, he issued a statement, attributed to Prince Mohammed, that he would run for 2034. A few hours later, the head of Asian football declared that the Saudi effort would have the full support of all its members.

Days later, Infantino left little doubt about the outcome he favored. At a summit of Asian soccer officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and again during an online meeting of many of the same leaders a week later, the FIFA president urged the Asian confederation, which includes Australia, “be united for the 2034 World Cup.” The message was not explicit. But it was received.

Indonesia, which only a week earlier had talked about bidding, abandoned its plan. Australia, the only remaining potential bidder, withdrew hours before the deadline. Its top official, James Johnson, later saying his country had concluded that the proposal stood no chance against a rival with such powerful public support. “The numbers,” she said, “are against us.”

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