Why this decision should not surprise anyone - Saudi 2034 World Cup


The prospect of a World Cup in Saudi Arabia has long been anticipated, with the country's unprecedented investment in sport over recent years always seemingly intended to lead to this moment.


No-one who has been paying attention to the way that the country has turned the world of golf upside down through the rebel LIV Series, or started to dominate the hosting of top boxing, or sent shockwaves through football's international transfer market, can be that surprised.


And yet, despite the staggering level of Saudi ambition in sport, the idea of a World Cup in the kingdom will still shock many.


Now that the country is all but guaranteed to be staging the tournament in 11 years' time, it has the potential to be even more controversial than Qatar's hosting last year; with concerns ranging from human rights issues, and Fifa's handling of the bidding process, to the calendar disruption and impact on player welfare due to what is likely to be another winter World Cup because of extreme summer temperatures.


In fact, with an expanded 48-team format, the level of disruption could be even greater than for Qatar 2022, along with the requirement for significant infrastructure construction, intensifying sustainability concerns.


Many critics will see this as the ultimate expression of 'sportswashing' - a form of soft power - by the biggest exporter of oil in the world - a country where there are grave concerns over women's rights abuses, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the restriction of free speech, the continued use of the death penalty, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and scrutiny over the country's involvement in the conflict in Yemen.


The Saudi authorities deny this, insisting their bid is designed to help modernize the country, to grow the game, inspire a youthful population, boost tourism, diversify the economy before the arrival of a post-oil world, and be a unifying force.


They point to the progress made in women's football for instance, and argue this is a natural next step after successfully hosting many events across multiple sports, establishing the Saudi Pro League as a footballing force, purchasing Newcastle United, and preparing to stage the Club World Cup this winter, along with the AFC Asian Cup in 2027.


But whatever the true motive of Saudi Arabia's rulers, its emergence as the one bidder for 2034 will intensify scrutiny on Fifa's processes and judgement, with some observers voicing concerns that this outcome had almost been engineered as an effective fait accompli in a deal lacking transparency and accountability.