There was still a residue of outrage in the reaction when the 2034 World Cup was handed to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. There were still good people who raged against the machine. Most of all, though, there was sad, grim resignation.
As soon as it had become clear the Saudis wanted to host the tournament, everyone knew it was a done deal. With FIFA, money is the only thing that matters. And money doesn’t just talk when the Saudis get involved with sport. It shouts from the rooftops.
It buys everything and everyone. It was instructive last week to see the cast of all-time great fighters the Saudis corralled to attend the ‘Battle of the Baddest’ between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou in Riyadh. It felt like every boxer who had ever won a belt was there. It was another exercise in excess.
If there is any sense of relief, it is that we will at least be spared the grotesque festival of venality that usually accompanies a World Cup bidding process. This time, FIFA haven’t even bothered with a vote. They put blinkers on and followed the money-trail.
It was interesting to see that Eddie Howe, the Newcastle United manager who usually pleads ignorance on anything to do with the kingdom that pays his wages, felt sufficiently informed to offer an opinion on the glad tidings about the 2034 tournament.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, left, has overseen the awarding of the 2034 World Cup to Saudi Arabia
All-time great boxers were brought to Saudi Arabia for Tyson Fury’s bout with Francis Ngannou
Newcastle boss Eddie Howe said Saudi Arabia would ensure everything is ‘structurally good’
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‘You can rest assured that everything will be structurally really good,’ Howe said, which was cheering. Howe might be England manager by then, of course. He might even be the Saudi manager given the extent of his fealty to the cause.
There will, of course, be issues surrounding the disruption of the European leagues by the logistical challenges posed by another winter World Cup. The Premier League and the rest will just have to suck that up. We never pay too much heed to the disruption summer World Cups cause to other continents.
But what remains hard to stomach is FIFA’s continuing blindness to the fact that a World Cup in Saudi Arabia means a World Cup in a kingdom where same-sex relationships are criminalised, women are treated as second-class citizens and human rights abuses flourish unabated.
Awarding the World Cup to Saudi Arabia is not a vote for change. It is an empowerment of the status quo. It is a reward for its abuses and its repression.
We should not seek to impose our culture on the Saudis but nor should we be complicit in the staging of a tournament in a country where whole swathes of the football community will not just be unwelcome but fearful of persecution and punishment.
Saudi Arabia can finance the Saudi Pro League and take players from European leagues and try to bolster attendances and even if, to western tastes, players choosing to ply their trade there in relative anonymity seems regrettable, it is a personal choice.
Heading to Saudi Arabia for the World Cup, which is supposed to be a global celebration of the game, which is supposed to be open to all, which is supposed to be a showcase for bringing people together through football, is entirely different.
‘The possibility that FIFA could award Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup despite its appalling human rights record and closed door to any monitoring exposes FIFA’s commitments to human rights as a sham,’ said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
Jordan Henderson is among the European players to have been attracted to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, left, has been criticised despite the influx of sporting events heading to the nation
The World Cup confirms Saudi Arabia will dominate the sporting landscape for a decade
‘Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record has deteriorated under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s rule, including mass executions, continued repression of women’s rights under its male guardianship system, and the killing of hundreds of migrants at the Saudi-Yemen border.’
The awarding of the World Cup to Saudi Arabia also means that the kingdom will dominate the sporting landscape for the next 11 years. That was predictable, anyway, but this is confirmation. The axis of world sport is shifting towards the Middle East and this will accelerate it.
It may be that the World Cup is Saudi’s endgame in its colonisation of sport. But I doubt it. It is more likely that other ambitious projects will precede it and follow it.
What price there will be a Champions League final in Riyadh in 2033? What price that Manchester United play Chelsea in a Premier League match there in 2035?
What price the 2035 Cricket World Cup in Saudi Arabia? What price the 2035 Ryder Cup in Jeddah? What price the 2036 Olympic Games in Riyadh?
The World Cup will not be the end of Saudi Arabia’s sporting ambitions. It will just be the end of the beginning.