Football’s global governing body FIFA has abandoned plans to expand the 2022 Qatar World Cup to 48 nations, deciding to stick with 32 countries because of the political and logistical complexities of using another Gulf nation.
FIFA has now concluded it lacks the time to prepare a country to host extra games [Noushad Thekkayil/EPA-EFE]
FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s hopes of expanding the Middle East’s first World Cup in the region were stymied by the regional diplomatic crisis and the body’s demands on host nations to adhere to its human and labour rights requirements.
That means the World Cup will not be expanded until 2026, with FIFA already having approved a format with 48 teams for that tournament in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
A meeting of the FIFA Council in March authorised Infantino to work with Qatar on seeing if it was feasible to use at least one more country in the region to accommodate 16 more matches and present a proposal at meetings in June.
“Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now,” FIFA said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June. It was, therefore, decided not to further pursue this option.”
A FIFA internal report had already concluded the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia could not join as cohosts unless they restore the economic and travel ties with Qatar that were severed two years ago.
The regional diplomatic crisis left neutral Kuwait – which acts as the mediator in the Gulf rift – and Oman as the viable options.
Oman has said it is not eager on hosting games at the FIFA showpiece. Infantino visited Kuwait last month in an attempt to persuade it to host matches in 2022.
But FIFA has now concluded it lacked to the time to prepare a country to host the extra games.
In Kuwait, Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium has 60,000 seats and the capacity at Sabah Al-Salem Stadium is only 26,000. Both venues would require upgrades to be used at the World Cup, putting the spotlight on working conditions and labour rights.
FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura wrote to human rights activists last month to offer assurances that there was going to be “an assessment of human rights risks and potential opportunities associated with a possible expansion”.
Qatar has an exemption that allows foreigners to drink alcohol, but Kuwait has a complete ban that would have been problematic for FIFA, which has the Budweiser brewery as a major sponsor.
FIFA has already had to adapt to cope with taking its showpiece tournament to the Middle East for the first time.
While Qatar won a vote in 2010 on the basis of staging a June-July World Cup, FIFA shifted the tournament from its usual slot because of the fierce summer heat to November 21-December 18, 2022.
‘Pie in the sky’
James Dorsey the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, said he was not surprised by FIFA’s decision on Wednesday.
“I think this was a foregone conclusion,” he told Al Jazeera from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. “We’ve had weeks of basically discussing hot air and something that was, in my mind, delusionary – with other words, Qatar was willing to play this out.
“It certainly became clear after Kuwait and Oman said that they would not be able to accommodate FIFA in an expanded World Cup, and the idea that Infantino was putting forward that an agreement to share the World Cup with Saudi Arabia and the UAE would put an end to the Gulf crisis was basically pie in the sky.”
Dorsey said that if the boycott of Qatar continued until the World Cup in 2022, the four blockading countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – were going to have “a really difficult problem”.
“It’s a soccer-crazy part of the world; this is the first time that a major sporting event is being held in the Middle East, and in fact in their backyard,” he said.
“Fans are not allowed to travel to Qatar under the boycott, and even if they were allowed the logistics of getting to Qatar would be very difficult, given the cut in air traffic and the closure of the Saudi-Qatari border,” he added.
“So in the end, you could see the boycotting states being put into a position where they would have to breach their own boycott.”