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Saudi ready for summer or winter World Cup after rapid bid process

Doha/Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi Arabia is prepared to host the 2034 World Cup in summer or winter, its football chief told AFP, as the conservative oil giant was anointed the tournament’s host just weeks after announcing a bid.

The quickfire crowning of the desert monarchy, which first allowed non-religious foreign tourists in 2019, comes less than a year after neighbouring Qatar held the first winter World Cup, and the first in the Middle East.

Despite summer temperatures touching 50 degrees Celsius in the major cities, Saudi Arabian Football Federation President Yasser al-Misehal did not rule out playing the tournament in the hottest months.

“Of course, we are ready for all possibilities,” Misehal said late on Tuesday at the Asian Football Confederation awards in Doha, when asked about the tournament’s timing.

“Today there are many new technologies that help you with cooling or adding air conditioners in stadiums, in addition to the fact that there are many cities in the kingdom that enjoy a very wonderful atmosphere in the summer,” he said.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter which is undergoing dizzying economic reforms, threw its hat in the ring on October 4, just 27 days before a truncated bidding process for the 2030 and 2034 World Cups ended on Tuesday. 

With the 2026 tournament set for the United States (US), Canada and Mexico, and 2030 destined for Spain, Morocco and Portugal with South American involvement, only candidates from the Asian and Oceanian confederations were eligible for 2034, due to FIFA’s continental rotation policy.

After Australia, the only other potential bidder, dropped out on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia was the sole candidate. Its successful bid was confirmed by FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Instagram.

The World Cup is just the latest in a string of Saudi sporting acquisitions under its 38-year-old de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including Formula One, heavyweight boxing, Newcastle United and LIV Golf.

Saudi clubs backed by the Public Investment Fund sovereign wealth vehicle have signed off hundreds of millions of dollars on star footballers this year, hiring the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema in an unprecedented binge.

However, SAFF said hosting the tournament is an “honour and privilege”, in a statement posted on social media late on Tuesday.

“Driven by a huge passion for the game by our young nation, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation is fully committed to meeting and exceeding the bid’s requirements,” it said.

Misehal also indicated that Saudi Arabia intends to push ahead and host the tournament alone, without asking its neighbours to hold any games.

That would make Saudi the first country to organise the newly expanded, 48-team World Cup on its own, after the joint hostings in 2026 and 2030.

A general view shows the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium in Jeddah during the Supercoppa Italiana final between Juventus and AC Milan on January 16, 2019. Saudi Arabia is prepared to host the 2034 World Cup in summer or winter, its football chief told AFP, after the oil giant became the sole bidder for the tournament.PHOTO: AFP