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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman MBS, right, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, centre, attend the launch of the Esports World Cup in Riyadh on Oct. 23.-/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia emerged as the likely winner in the abbreviated race to host soccer’s World Cup in 2034 on Tuesday after Australia’s soccer federation announced that it would not bid for the tournament. The decision removed what was the only potential hurdle in the way of Saudi Arabia’s plan to bring the world’s most-watched sporting event back to the Gulf.

Australia announced its decision hours before a deadline set by soccer’s governing body, FIFA, for nations to express an interest in hosting the World Cup. Saudi Arabia made clear its intent to bid weeks ago, and FIFA’s rules – and powerful allies – have all but assured that the kingdom will prevail.

In a sudden and surprising move on Oct. 4, FIFA announced a truncated bidding timeline for the 2034 tournament, telling interested nations that they had only 25 days to formally express their interest and provide extensive declarations of government backing for a 48-team, multicity event that usually requires billions of dollars and years of planning.

The decision to shorten that timeline to only a matter of weeks was made public on the same day that FIFA formally announced its 2030 World Cup would be shared by countries in Europe, Africa and South America. Soccer federations only found out about the possibility a week before the decision was confirmed.

FIFA’s move to speed up the bidding for 2034 surprised many. FIFA also said only bidders from Asia and Oceania, two of soccer’s six regional confederations, could be considered for selection, and on Tuesday evening it confirmed that Saudi Arabia was the only bidder.

Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, declared the kingdom’s intent to bid within minutes of FIFA’s announcement of the official timeline, and within hours the Saudis had received the backing of Asian soccer’s top leader, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain.

Australian officials concluded they would have been overmatched if they attempted to challenge Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has signed agreements in the past year with scores of FIFA’s member nations, committing millions of dollars to projects across Asia and lavishing attention on Africa, where it signed an agreement with the regional governing body and sponsored a new tournament.

A final announcement of the 2034 host will be made in the fourth quarter of 2024, FIFA said.

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