Saudi Arabia emerged as the likely winner in the abbreviated race to host soccer’s World Cup in 2034 on Tuesday after Australia’s soccer federation announced that it would not bid for the tournament. The decision most likely removed the only hurdle in the way of Saudi Arabia’s plan to bring the world’s most-watched sporting event back to the Gulf.
Australia announced its decision hours before a deadline set by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, for nations to express an interest in hosting the World Cup. Saudi Arabia made clear its intent to bid weeks ago, and FIFA’s rules — and powerful allies — have all but assured it will prevail.
In a sudden and surprising move earlier this month, FIFA announced a truncated bidding timeline for the tournament, telling interested nations that they had only 25 days to formally express their interest and provide extensive declarations of government backing for a 48-team, multicity event that usually requires billions of dollars and years of planning.
The decision to shorten that timeline to only a matter of weeks was announced on the same day FIFA formally announced that its 2030 World Cup would be shared by countries in Europe, Africa and South America.
FIFA’s move to speed up the bidding for 2034 surprised many, coming 11 years before the scheduled start of the tournament and a full three years before the 2034 host was supposed to be decided. FIFA also said only bidders from Asia and Oceania, two of soccer’s six regional confederations, could be considered for selection.
Saudi Arabia, which had for years been public about its desire to host the World Cup, particularly after its neighbor Qatar won the rights to the 2022 championship, moved fast to secure the tournament after FIFA set the rules this month. Its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared the kingdom’s intent to bid within minutes of FIFA’s announcement of the official timeline, and within hours the Saudis had received the backing of Asian soccer leaders.
Australia, widely considered an outsider, had said that after successfully staging this year’s Women’s World Cup it would explore the idea of push for the men’s tournament. But on Tuesday it announced that it had decided not to mount an official bid, saying it would instead concentrate on staging other events.
“We wish FIFA and the eventual hosts of the FIFA World Cup 2034 the greatest success for the good of the game and for everyone who loves our sport,” the Australian federation said in a statement on its website.
Australian officials may have concluded that they would have been overmatched if they challenged Saudi Arabia to secure the votes of the majority of FIFA’s 211 federations. Saudi Arabia has in the past year signed agreements with scores of FIFA’s member nations, and it also had locked up the crucial backing of the Asian soccer confederation, of which Australia is also a member.
Almost as soon as Saudi Arabia declared its intention to bid, the president of the Asian confederation, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain, announced that “the entire Asian football family will stand united in support” of the Saudi bid.