Inside Man: How FIFA Guided the World Cup to Saudi Arabia

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.

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