As the world reeled from the coronavirus crisis in the fall of 2020, the president of soccer’s global governing body, Gianni Infantino, headed to Rome for an audience with Italy’s prime minister.
Wearing masks and bumping elbows, Mr. Infantino, the president of FIFA, and the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, greeted each other in front of journalists before disappearing with the president of the Italian soccer federation into one of the ornate state rooms of the 16th-century Palazzo Chigi, the Italian leader’s official residence.
Mr. Infantino explained afterward that they had talked about soccer’s path to recovery from pandemic shutdowns. He made no mention of the other pressing topic he had come to discuss.
Away from the television cameras, Mr. Infantino surprised the Italians by revealing himself to be a pitchman for an effort by Saudi Arabia to stage soccer’s biggest championship, the World Cup. Saudi Arabia had already secured the backing of Egypt, the FIFA president told the Italian officials, and now was looking for a European partner for what would be a unique tournament staged on three continents in 2030. Italy, he said, could be that partner.
Mr. Conte listened politely but would have known that such a partnership was politically impossible: Italy had strained relations with Egypt over the brutal killing of a young Italian journalist in Cairo in 2016, and there was continuing discomfort across Europe about the Saudi role in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post.
The Italian reaction to Mr. Infantino’s suggestion was at first “prudent and within a few hours negative,” said Pietro Benassi, who was the prime minister’s most senior diplomatic adviser. The country said no.
Three years later, Saudi Arabia would get its prize anyway. On Oct. 31, after an expedited process that caught its own members by surprise, FIFA confirmed Saudi Arabia was the sole bidder for the 2034 World Cup. Within hours, Mr. Infantino implied in a social media post that its status as host was a done deal and other Gulf rulers hailed it an “Arab victory” — even though the official vote was nearly a year away.
To many in soccer, Mr. Infantino’s advocacy for Saudi Arabia was nothing new. In the years since his visit to Rome, he had also pitched the Saudis’ co-hosting idea to Greece; championed multimillion-dollar Saudi investments in soccer; and helped shepherd rules changes that all but assured the kingdom would wind up with the World Cup.
His efforts were hardly clandestine. But they have left many in soccer concerned about Mr. Infantino’s motivations, and questioning if he is using his position to prioritize FIFA’s interests or those of a friendly partner that has been leveraging its wealth to wield influence in the sport.
“How can we control that growing the game, and the values of the game, are leading the way, and not personal relationships?” said Lise Klaveness, the Norwegian soccer federation president and a critic of FIFA governance.
FIFA, through a spokesman, responded to questions about Mr. Infantino’s actions on the president’s behalf, and said nothing improper had been done to ensure that the World Cup went to a preferred candidate. “The selection of venues for the FIFA World Cup takes place through an open and transparent bidding process,” the spokesman said, adding that Mr. Infantino had not “triggered or initiated” discussions about Saudi Arabia’s bid with potential partners.
Still, the swiftness and secrecy with which FIFA handled the hosting rights for the 2030 and 2034 tournaments has brought new criticism of the way soccer is governed, and how the organization’s most consequential decisions are now made by a small group of top executives, led by Mr. Infantino, and then rubber-stamped by a pliant governing council.
“What is incredible is this is the new FIFA,” said Miguel Maduro, the first governance head appointed by Mr. Infantino amid promises of transparency and ethical reforms. “Yet they basically go back to the same old way of awarding World Cups.”
Saudi Arabia never hid its desire to host one. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi state has given sports a prominent role in efforts to project a new image of the country: vibrant, modern, open. Billions have been spent on boxing matches, Formula 1 auto races, the LIV Golf tour and, most recently, to lure some of the worst’s most famous soccer stars to Saudi Arabia’s domestic league.
The biggest prize, however, was always the World Cup. And in Mr. Infantino, Saudi Arabia found an enthusiastic ally. In many ways, the kingdom’s ambitions dovetailed with his own as he sought to create new legacy-defining events and projects, all of which would require major infusions of new capital.
In 2018, for instance, Mr. Infantino stunned members of FIFA’s board by demanding permission to close a deal for new competitions with investors whose identity he refused to reveal. (After the deal collapsed, it emerged that the group behind the offer, SoftBank, counted Saudi Arabia among its biggest backers.) Three years later, Mr. Infantino infuriated many in soccer by saying FIFA would study a proposal — offered by Saudi Arabia’s federation — to hold the World Cup every two years. (The unpopular concept was shelved after a furious response.)
Despite those failures, the relationship between Mr. Infantino and Saudi Arabia only grew closer. He has frequently promoted its events on social media, and in 2021 he starred in a video released by its ministry of sports. In August 2022, he and Prince Mohammed shared a suite at a boxing match in Jeddah. Months later, the FIFA president repaid the favor at the opening game of the World Cup in Qatar. Only last month, the men were photographed sitting side by side at yet another event in Riyadh.
“It is intended to send a message,” said Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. “It’s like a visual symbol of putting your thumb on the scale.”
At the same time, Mr. Infantino was also engaging in private diplomacy that benefited Saudi Arabia’s World Cup ambitions.
After Italy passed on partnering on a World Cup bid, Saudi Arabia approached Greece with the offer, and Mr. Infantino discussed the idea with the Greek prime minister on the sidelines of a U.N. meeting in September 2021. But that idea was withdrawn after Morocco joined forces with Spain and Portugal in a potentially unbeatable bid for the 2030 World Cup.
Instead, Saudi Arabia shifted its focus. Realizing the Spain-Portugal-Morocco proposal would probably succeed over an unlikely four-nation offer from South America, the Saudis realized they could benefit from FIFA rules that would bar countries from Europe and Africa from challenging for the 2034 tournament when that bidding process began.
Then FIFA made two more curious moves.
The first three games of the 2030 World Cup, it suddenly announced, would be played in Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay as a celebration of the World Cup’s centenary. (The first World Cup was played in Uruguay in 1930.) That brought South America into the Portugal-Spain-Morocco bid — and eliminated yet another continent from the eligible bidders for 2034.
But with the 2030 hosts sorted, FIFA unexpectedly said that it was bringing forward the bid process for the 2034 tournament by at least three years, limiting the countries who could bid for it in ways that favored the Saudi bid, and planning to complete it in what for most countries represented an impossible timeline: Interested nations were given only 25 days to express their intent, and only a few weeks more to submit official bids, which typically require significant government backing.
Mr. Infantino claimed there had been “widespread consultation” on the decision. But Ms. Klaveness, the president of the Norway federation, said she only learned of it when the official news release went out, and Australian soccer’s chief executive said the changes “did catch us a little bit by surprise.”
Among those not surprised? Saudi Arabia. Within minutes, it released a statement, attributed to Prince Mohammed, that it would bid for 2034. A few hours later, the head of Asian soccer declared the Saudi effort would have the full support of his entire membership.
Days later, Mr. Infantino left little doubt about the outcome he favored. At a summit of Asian soccer officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and again during an online meeting of many of the same leaders a week later, the FIFA president urged the Asian confederation — which includes Australia — “to be united for the 2034 World Cup.” The message was not explicit. But it was received.
Indonesia, which only a week earlier had talked of bidding, dropped its plan. Australia, the only potential bidder left, pulled out hours before the deadline. Its top official, James Johnson, later said his country had concluded any that proposal stood no chance against a rival with such powerful public support. “The numbers,” he said, “are stacked against us.”