UK-Ireland 2030 World Cup Bid Can Fix Wembley Trouble, Beating Saudi Arabia Is Another Matter

The race to host the 2030 World Cup saw two big twists this week. The first was the crowd trouble around Wembley Stadium last Sunday, and the damage it has caused to the United Kingdom and Ireland’s 2030 World Cup bid.

The second, which could be more damaging to Wembley’s chances of hosting a first World Cup final since 1966, is the surprise proposed bid by Saudi Arabia and Italy.

In the aftermath of the crowd trouble at Wembley at last Sunday’s Euro 2020 final between England and Italy, where hundreds of ticketless fans got through the limited security presence and entered the stadium, media outlets rushed to pass judgment on England and the British Isles’ 2030 World Cup bid. The Euro 2020 final had been a chance for England to showcase its ability to host the World Cup but instead reminded everybody that England’s hooligan problems of the past are still part of its present.

The embarrassing scenes are a blow to the England-led bid, but they are fixable. UEFA could have decided to host the European Championships behind closed doors, like the Olympics in Japan, but instead chose to have fans attending. That might be controversial from a public health point of view, but it is clear that having fans in the stadiums made for a far better tournament than the clinical dullness of empty stands.

But with the tournament coming just as the UK opens up from its long lockdown, a perfect storm of event organizers trying to put on a major event effectively last-minute while trying to comply with virus-prevention measures, a large number of people trying to have a year’s worth of Saturday nights out in one weekend, and England’s first appearance in a final in many fans’ lifetimes led to last Sunday’s crowd problems. It is extremely unlikely that the 2030 World Cup will take place in similar circumstances.

The other reason for fans breaking into Wembley is that the stadium isn’t surrounded by a “ring of steel” or thousands of armed guards like other countries have done for major sports events. It is quite easy for the authorities to increase the security level around Wembley if they need to, just like at the G20 summit in Cornwall a few weeks earlier.

South America, which is also bidding, has seen fan trouble so bad that it had to move the 2018 Copa Libertadores final from Argentina to Spain, and at the end of the day, increasing the security of Wembley is far easier than building a stadium in the Amazon or an entirely new city in Qatar.

Nine years is plenty of time to solve this problem. But the British and Irish bid doesn’t have nine years. It has to convince the rest of UEFA that it is a better choice than Spain and Portugal or a possible joint bid by south-east Europe, and it has to do that in the next year.

Whichever bid UEFA chooses will be a strong challenge to the Uruguay-Argentina-Chile-Paraguay bid that looks to host mark 100 years since the very first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930.

But all of those bids will find it hard to compete if either Saudi Arabia or China formally throw their hats into the ring.

This week, the Athletic reported that Saudi Arabia is considering a joint bid with Italy to host the World Cup in 2030.

Even before that, Saudi Arabia’s recent proposal to hold the World Cup every two years was a clear sign that it was interested in hosting the world’s top soccer tournament. There have also been reports in the past few months that they could co-host with Egypt or Morocco, so while it is not clear what any bid involving Saudi Arabia will look like, it is very clear that Riyadh wants the World Cup.

Hosting a World Cup would help Saudi Arabia become a regional sports hub. Riyadh is already pumping money into European leagues so it can host cup competitions like the Spanish Super Cup and Italian Super Cup in Saudi Arabia.

China could also be considering a bid and has already been building mega-stadiums galore in anticipation of hosting the World Cup. In the next two years, it will host the Winter Olympics and the Asian Cup.

World Cup bids before 2026 were decided by a small number of people. FIFA’s more transparent bidding system might at first make it seem that UEFA’s bids have a strong chance of success. Despite the scenes at Wembley, both the British/Irish and the Spanish/Portuguese bids would be commercially attractive and risk-free.

FIFA members rely on the World Cup for their revenues, and the number one factor determining which bid will succeed is how much money it can add to FIFA’s coffers. A lot of that money comes from broadcasting rights and sponsorship.

China and Saudi Arabia can add to FIFA’s coffers through sponsorship deals. Several Chinese firms including Wanda and Hisense are major FIFA and World Cup, sponsors. Saudi Arabia is only just starting to get into the sponsorship game but has reportedly spent over $1.5 billion on hosting sports events in recent years, as well as sponsoring the Asian Football Confederation, and looking to sponsor Real Madrid.

As FIFA’s past scandals have made other major sponsors reconsider the value to their brands of events like the World Cup, FIFA could become more and more reliant on Chinese or Saudi Arabian sponsors, which puts some real weight behind those countries’ bids.

For all the outrage about England fans’ behavior, or the romance of holding the World Cup final in Montevideo to mark the centenary of the first World Cup, at the end of the day, these factors are second to money when it comes to choosing who gets to host soccer’s showpiece tournament.

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