The World Cup faces an uncertain future

Following a bidding process that could scarcely be described as a bidding process, the 2034 FIFA World Cup has been awarded to Saudi Arabia.

This has provoked the usual flurry of conversation around football’s ever-growing relationship with the Gulf States: human rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights and the prioritisation of the men’s game over the women’s (the next Women’s World Cup in 2027 does not even have a confirmed host yet), and workers’ rights.

This is before we even get to logistical matters: in addition to the weather issue which plagued the build-up to Qatar 2022, the Saudi bid does not name any stadia. Even the Qatari bid included details of the stadiums they intended to host the tournament.

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As things stand, Saudi has two stadia with a capacity over 40,000. As a point of comparison, for the next World Cup in 2026 the US, Canada and Mexico plan to use 16 stadia, with a smallest capacity of 45,736.

Of course there is no doubt that Saudi can snap their fingers and produce whatever infrastructure they need, but the point remains that the Saudi bid was scant on detail yet still passed FIFA’s tests.

It is fairly apparent there were some golden handshakes that helped the seal the deal for this World Cup bid, but then this is nothing new for football. It’s widely believed the Qatar 2022 and Germany 2006 bids were won thanks to some extracurricular activity, while the UK-Ireland bid for Euro 2028 is also believed to have been successful thanks to some deal making that involved switching the bid from the 2030 World Cup to Euro 2028 in exchange for success.

However, there’s something that is unique about this Saudi bid, at least in this day and age: it’s a one-country bid, and is set to be the first single-host tournament of the 48-team World Cup era.

2026 is a joint US/Canada/Mexico operation, while 2030 is a convoluted mess of Spain/Portugal/Morocco plus a handful of matches in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. Ostensibly this is ‘to commemorate the centenary of the World Cup’ and while this is true the cynics also suggest it helped remove South America as a potential host continent for 2034, paving the way for Saudi.

Above all of the airmiles though, what this tale of the future tells us is that the World Cup is becoming big and unwieldy and in serious danger of becoming a white elephant.

The expansion was driven by greed and it does not take a genius to work this out. FIFA sold it as giving a fair shake to Africa and Asia, who were improving yet received a fraction of the World Cup spots, resulting in big names like Egypt, Algeria and Nigeria missing the tournament.

Except the biggest advocates of expansion were CONMEBOL, South America. They already received four guaranteed spots in the 32-team tournament plus a potential fifth via the playoff. Half of the entirety of CONMEBOL could reach the World Cup.

With the expansion, CONMEBOL gets six spots, plus a potential seventh. If things go well, 70% of the entirety of CONMEBOL could qualify for the World Cup. To compare, at most 18% of CAF (Africa) and 19% of AFC (Asia) can qualify for the expanded World Cup. Even UEFA, with the most slots at 16, only sends 29% of its members to the World Cup.

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The 48-team World Cup exists solely to maximise eyes on screen, increase sponsorship dollars for FIFA, and maintain money streams for national FAs thanks to reduced risk of missing the tournament.

Nothing sums up this farcical development better than the fact that, with three years to go, FIFA have not even decided on a format for the tournament yet. Originally they had the 16-groups-of-3 format, however upon realising in 2022 that the setup with 32 teams in groups of four was actually quite good and people enjoyed it, they’re rushing around trying to find a way to preserve that even if mathematics tells them they can’t.

But the stresses FIFA’s greed places on FIFA itself is just one component of the growing 48-team headache. The more pressing one is the stress it places on the host.

Hosting a major sporting event is a gamble. It comes with a lot of prestige, but prestige costs money, and since 2008 spending money on extravagant tournaments has been both a strain for nations and not always popular with the locals.

The problem is showing with minor sporting events. The Commonwealth Games is in dire straits: 2022 was meant to be hosted by Durban in South Africa, but they would eventually pull out citing costs and force Birmingham to take over at the Eleventh Hour. History has repeated itself with Victoria 2026, leaving the future of the entire event in doubt.

As the two biggest sports events in the world, the World Cup and the Olympics have largely been insulated from this problem, but the lingering threat is clearly illustrated in the increasing lack of bidders. The 2012 Olympics had a final shortlist of five cities; the 2020 Olympics a shortlist of three, and the 2024 and 2028 Olympics a shortlist of one.

For the FIFA World Cup, not only are bidding lists getting shorter but they’re getting more convoluted. The 2026 World Cup had two bidders; 2030 had four which dropped to two, none of which were single-host.

2034 had one sole confirmed bidder in Saudi Arabia, and of the proposed alternatives there were no single-hosts, with one proposal having as many as ten hosts.

All of this says the World Cup is setting itself up for a problem. FIFA are demanding too much of hosts: too many teams to host, too many fans to accommodate and move around and police, and too high a standard of venue. Look back at World Cups like 1982, 1986 and 1990 – would stadia as bare-bones as Oviedo, Neza and Cagliari be considered acceptable today?

By contrast, for 2030 Spain – a country with no shortage of football stadia – will expand six stadia and renovate ten others to meet FIFA’s requirements. Only four are ‘ready to go’. And this is before we get to Portugal and Morocco’s plans.

The only remaining customers for the World Cup are the super-rich for whom prestige matters more than anything, or a patchwork of others unwilling to shoulder the cost themselves. Even the upcoming UK-Ireland Euro 2028 began as an expression of interest by the English FA alone. A country with no shortage of football stadia and infrastructure quickly began involving the neighbours as they realised just what it would cost to put it on themselves.

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Sports tournaments in general are struggling to move with modern times, though football is by far the worst offender in this category. The Olympics at least begrudgingly acknowledges its precarious situation, re-treading old ground and old venues for the sake of keeping costs down. Football however continues to demand more, more, more. More teams, more venues, more hosts. More money, and to hell with everything else.

This era can best be summed up with ‘bid first, ask questions later’. What venues will Saudi use in 2034? How will teams be allocated between Europe and South America in 2030? How many of the five host nations of 2028 qualify automatically, and was it a good idea to make the Northern Irish stadium the most politically contentious venue in tournament history? Who cares! So long as the contract is signed, everything else can be worked out later.

As stated before, the FIFA World Cup is still somewhat insulated from this problem coming home to roost. It is just too lucrative and too prestigious to turn down, even if accepting it means contorting yourself in odd ways to meet its ludicrous demands. Whether this scenario will persist into the future however remains to be seen.

I could be completely wrong, of course: this isn’t the first World Cup expansion, and expanding to 32 teams in 2002 would have been contentious too. The 48-team tournament in 2026 may be a roaring success, so much so that future bidders happily accept the cost for the individual prestige of hosting alone. Expansion may come to be looked back upon as a no-brainer, but until then FIFA’s crown jewel tournament looks to be treading dangerous ground of confusion and uncertainty that runs the risk of falling back down to earth with a bang.

The Author

Alex Jackson

I write about non-league and world football, as well as football culture. Can occasionally be found wandering the world in search of a kickabout.

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