Saudi World Cup bid boosted after Indonesia drops Australia

GENEVA (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s FIFA-favored bid to host the men’s World Cup in 2034 passed on Wednesday one of the few barriers left in what seems an inevitable win.

One week after revealing talks with Australia about bidding to co-host the 2034 World Cup, Indonesian soccer leader Erick Thohir said his federation is now with Saudi Arabia.

Thohir’s change of plan was detailed in a statement on the Indonesian soccer federation website hours before an online meeting of the Asian Football Confederation, whose 47 members include Australia, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

During the meeting, FIFA President Gianni Infantino urged AFC members to “be united for the 2034 World Cup.”

Infantino has long been a close ally of Saudi soccer and the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and FIFA’s surprise decision two weeks ago to fast-track bidding for the 2034 men’s tournament was seen as favorable for them.

AFC members responded quickly to Infantino’s urging and the Japan federation proposed united support behind the Saudi bid backed by Uzbekistan, Lebanon and India.

“Japan has a plan to host the FIFA World Cup by 2050 but now it’s time for Asia to get united and make a single bid (for 2034),” Japanese federation official Tsuneyasu Miyamoto said, praising Saudi Arabia for a “long football history, massive passion and a wonderful vision for 2034.”

Australian officials did not take part in the online discussion.

After an initial technical problem connecting to the meeting, Saudi federation president Yasser al Misehal said: “It’s always known that Asia is always united.”

“We have been overwhelmed by a huge number of supporting letters, announcements from all over the world. This puts a big responsibility on us to really deliver a successful bid,” said al Misehal. He is a member of the FIFA Council and likely candidate for the AFC presidency in 2027, the year Saudi Arabia hosts the men’s Asian Cup after an extensive stadium-building program.

The Infantino-chaired FIFA Council agreed two weeks ago only members of the AFC and Oceania’s soccer body — New Zealand and scattered Pacific islands – can bid for the 2034 tournament, and also accepted just a single 2030 co-host bid teaming Europe, Africa and South America across six nations.

FIFA give federations in Asia and Oceania an Oct. 31 deadline to show interest and just one month more to submit a detailed bidding agreement with government support.

Saudi Arabia confirmed its intention almost immediately after FIFA opened the contest on Oct. 4. Within minutes, the AFC’s president, Bahraini royal family member Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, said the Saudis had its united backing.

Speculation about an Australia-Indonesia plan, possibly including Malaysia and Singapore, suggested there was not total Asian unity.

Indonesia’s announcement Wednesday isolated Australia if it wants to make a 2034 bid to follow its successful co-hosting of the 2023 Women’s World Cup with New Zealand.

“There is enough division already all over the world. We have occasions to send messages of unity,” Infantino said Wednesday in a video message from Zurich to AFC members.

Infantino reminded them of his message at a soccer officials’ meeting this month in Tashkent, Uzbekistan — “to be united in Asia as well, to be united for the 2034 World Cup.”

FIFA wants to confirm the 2030 and 2034 World Cup hosts late next year at separate meetings of its 211-member federations.

The Europe-led bid of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Argentina, Paraguay and the inaugural 1930 host Uruguay is the consensus choice for 2030. The South Americans are set to get just one game each of the 104-game slate, yet that removes their soccer body from the 2034 picture as FIFA looks to rotate hosting between continents.

North and Central American soccer body CONCACAF gets its turn in 2026 when the United States, Canada and Mexico host the first 48-team, 104-game edition.

Thohir, an Indonesian government minister who has close ties to Infantino, said Wednesday his country still aims to host when Asia next gets its turn after 2034. That could be in 2046.

Indonesia hosts the men’s Under-17 World Cup for FIFA next month after being stripped in March of the Under-20 version because the Muslim-majority nation refused to stage the games of Israel, which had qualified.

The Australian soccer federation also has shown interest in hosting the 32-team Club World Cup for FIFA in 2029. Getting a FIFA promise for that tournament is a potential price for letting the Oct. 31 deadline pass.

Saudi Arabia will host the last annual seven-team Club World Cup for FIFA in December. The club tournament is relaunched as a four-yearly, 32-team tournament in June 2025 in the United States.

Winning World Cup hosting rights can accelerate a Saudi state soccer project fueled by oil riches, which has already led to the buying of Premier League club Newcastle, the take over and funding of four storied domestic clubs, plus sponsorship of international competitions by the “Visit Saudi” tourism board.

The project is surging despite long-standing concerns about human rights in the kingdom and a reputational crisis for the crown prince after the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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