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It's coming Rome... and Riyadh: Saudi Arabia and Italy consider joint 2030 World Cup bid

New report reveals ambitious Saudi-Italy attempt to host coveted global tournament, as joint 'MENA bid' with Egypt and Morocco also considered
Italy celebrate winning Euro 2020 after defeating England in a penalty shootout at Wembley Stadium in London on 11 July 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia is considering launching a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup with Italy, according to a report in The Athletic. 

The 2030 event will mark the centennial of the first tournament, and has attracted interest from around the world. Bids are expected from 1930 host Uruguay, a joint Iberian effort from Spain and Portugal, and a UK and Republic of Ireland bid, among others. 

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The Boston Consulting Group is advising Saudi Arabia on its attempt to host the coveted tournament and has been exploring potential co-hosts, according to a report published in the New York Times last month. 

One option being touted was a “MENA bid” involving Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco. However, concerns were raised about infrastructure in the latter two countries, and possible economic and security implications.

Recently-crowned European football champions Italy have since emerged as the most likely candidate for a joint bid, several sources told The Athletic on Friday.

Earlier this week, the president of the Italian Fotball Federation said that it was evaluating the possibility of bidding to host the 2028 European Championship or the World Cup two years later.

Any attempt to secure hosting rights in Saudi Arabia are likely to prove difficult, considering its Gulf neighbour Qatar is hosting the 2022 tournament.

Growing sporting relations 

Italy and Saudi Arabia have maintained a close relationship, particularly when it comes to football. 

The kingdom has hosted the last two Italian Super Cup competitions - the annual contest between the country’s league and cup winners. It is set to host the one-off match once again in January. 

Italy’s top league, Serie A, is broadcast throughout the Middle East on BeIN Sports, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Gulf rival Qatar. 

Last year, BeIN refused to show one round of Serie A games in protest at the Italian league’s growing relations with Saudi Arabia. 

The Doha-based broadcaster has been involved in a lengthy legal battle with Riyadh, after prominent Saudi nationals promoted beoutQ, a pirate network that illegally streamed its content.

BeIN Sports criticised the Italian league for agreeing to stage the Super Cup in a country that was effectively stealing its income. 

According to The Athletic, Saudi Arabia is set to launch an alternative to the Qatari network, with the rights to Italian football as its first major item. 

'Sportswashing' human rights 

Last week, Italy controversially announced that it was lifting a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, after previous concerns that weapons were being used to kill civilians in Yemen. 

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Government sources in Italy said that the decision to loosen restrictions was aimed at easing diplomatic tensions with the two Gulf countries.

Human rights activists have accused Riyadh of attempting to “sportswash” its human rights record and improve its reputation around the world. In recent years, the kingdom has hosted wrestling, football, golf and world heavyweight boxing. The inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is set to take place in December in Jeddah. 

Riyadh maintains close links with Fifa. The football governing body's president, Gianni Infantino, visited the kingdom in January and held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where the two reportedly talked about "the role football can play as a uniting factor in the region".

“The potential World Cup bid is only the latest of a series of attempts - and successes - to sportswash human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia,” Ines Osman, director of MENA Rights Group, told Middle East Eye. 

“Rome working with Riyadh is the last nail in the coffin following the lift of Italy's arms sales ban on Saudi Arabia. It is high time sports players start speaking up as their silence is making them complicit in Riyadh's soft power tactics.”