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Greece faces a growing backlash over a planned joint bid with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to host the 2030 football World Cup.
The mooted bid would see Greece team up with two countries that have been widely condemned by human rights groups for a raft of abuses, including discrimination against women, brutal treatment of manual workers, and the torture — and even murder — of critics.
Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has made big moves into the sports world. It has snapped up hosting rights to Formula One races and world championship boxing bouts, created a controversial golf tour that has fractured the sport, bought an English Premier League football team — and is now setting its sights on one of the crown jewels of global sport, the FIFA World Cup.
The presence of Greece and Egypt in the Saudi-fronted bid is a nod to continental balance, as the Middle East would not be front of the line for the 2030 event as it is hosting this year’s World Cup, which begins in November in Qatar (another controversial host). The bidding process for the 2030 tournament — which includes a human rights evaluation component — has not yet officially opened.
As part of a joint bid for the 48-team tournament in 2030, Greece would be subject to serious scrutiny of its own human rights record, particularly related to the treatment of migrants, as well as being “associated with whatever human rights abuses Saudi Arabia and Egypt commit in the course of hosting the World Cup,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.
Worden added that Saudi Arabia’s maneuvers around global athletic events were part of Riyadh’s “pernicious” sportswashing strategy, where unsavory regimes attempt to launder their reputations by associating with glamorous and popular sporting events and stars.
Saudi Arabia has come under fire for jailing a woman for 34 years for using social media, its ongoing repression of the country’s LGBTQ+ community, and the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which Worden said “stands forever as an emblem of the Saudis’ treatment of peaceful critics and journalists.”
Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, which represents fans across the Continent, said: “A three-continent tournament like this would have an incredible cost and an incredible carbon footprint. A lot of fans don’t want to be associated with this sort of insane project.”
And critically, Evain said, the Saudis’ attitude to human rights should make the proposal a nonstarter.
“There’s no way FIFA [world football’s governing body] can protect fans’ rights in a country like Saudi Arabia,” he said. “They are too co-dependent because they need their money.”
Worden added that “there’s no evidence that sport taking Saudi money is improving human rights in the kingdom” — rebutting a long-standing line of argument from sports that take cash from repressive regimes.
Since coming to power in 2019, Greece’s conservative New Democracy government has sought to deepen ties with the Saudis and other Gulf countries, as a response to archrival Turkey’s expansionist policy in the region.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has visited Riyadh multiple times; Greece has delivered military equipment and soldiers to Saudi Arabia; and in July, Athens became the first EU capital visited by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since he personally sanctioned the Khashoggi murder, according to declassified U.S. intelligence.
Bin Salman, now back in the West’s good graces thanks to an energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war on Ukraine, signed a number of bilateral agreements in Athens this summer, including a new deal on undersea data cables and an agreement on renewable energy, while pledging to make Greece an energy hub for the distribution of “green hydrogen.”
In recent years, FIFA has also strengthened its relationship with the regime in Riyadh, which last year powered a failed attempt to increase the frequency of the World Cup from every four years to every two.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino even attended a boxing match in Jeddah last month, watching the fight in the same executive box as the controversial Saudi crown prince.
The Saudi and Egyptian governments did not respond to requests for comment. FIFA and the Greek government declined to comment.
A Spain-Portugal joint bid — backed by European football’s governing body, UEFA — has been viewed as a front-runner for the 2030 World Cup, going up against a South American joint bid by Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Paraguay. The 2026 World Cup will be hosted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.