KEIR RADNEDGE in LAUSANNE —- Any prospect of the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar expanding to 48 teams has been virtually ruled out by Zvonimir Boban, FIFA’s deputy secretary general.

The ultimate decision is not Boban’s to take; this is a task for the world football federation’s governing council in Miami in March.

But Boban’s comments here in Lausanne to the annual congress of AIPS, the international sports journalists’ association, left little doubt that any options for change are sealed off.

Zvonimir Boban addressing AIPS Congress / Picture: AIPS

The Qatari hosts have been planning and building for the 2022 finals ever since the controversial award was delivered by the now-defunct FIFA executive committee in December 2010. Initially the smallest-ever host proposed up to 10 or 12 venues, a number later trimmed back to the current eight.

South American confederation CONMEBOL proposed last year that the expansion from 32 to 48 teams should be brought forward from 2026 to 2022. This gained widespread support from Africa and Asia in particular, all viewing the possibility of more slots at the finals.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been careful, diplomatically, to leave the issue open ahead of council’s decision.

Difficult choice

However, as Boban stated, the obstacles to expansion in 2022 are significant.

He said: “To go to 48 teams would make difficulties for Qatar because of the preparations already made for 32 teams. Qatar, in itself, would find it difficult to accommodate a finals with 48 teams.

“In that case it would be necessary to spread the matches into some other countries nearby and this brings other issues into play.”

One, obviously, is the current political and economic blockade of Qatar being led by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and also including the United Arab Emirates.

Boban then pointed up directly a further obstacle.

He said: “The concept of matches in other countries would cause big problems because of how the tournament was awarded. Consider the other countries who bid, like Australia and Japan and Korea Republic or even the United States: how would they react?”

Boban played around 60 games for the former Yugoslavia and then Croatia with whom he placed third at the 1998 World Cup. He also won four Italian Serie A titles and the Champions League with Milan before retiring to a career as businessman, publisher and TV analyst before being brought into FIFA after Infantino’s election in 2016.

The 50-year-old conceded that, during his playing days, he considered FIFA as “a strange, distant organisation which had nothing to do with us.”

Now the balance had changed. Boban acknowledged the corruption issues which had scarred FIFA’s reputation and which would take many more years to heal. But he believed that change was under way and evidence was that much recent discussion around FIFA issues had concerned not corruption but competition development.

Competitive structures

One of the other major issues before council concerns changes in the world game’s competitive structure. These concern a revamping of the FIFA Club World Cup and the development of a nations league on the model launched last year by European federation UEFA.

The most likely option for the club tournament is to replace the unhappy annual December event with a 24-team show every four years.

Boban said: “There are many commercial organisations which organise matches for European clubs in the summer. No-one should object to the Club World Cup in the summer because it will not make money just for these businesses but for the clubs and for the game of football.”

As for a global nations league, Boban admitted that the UEFA experience had changed his opinion.

He said: “I was against the idea. I thought it meant only more games for the poor players. But it was a success. I was wrong. I can see that now.

“Certainly it can work around the world. But this depends on the confederations. You cannot have an intercontinental tournament. Each confederation can organise its own nations league and then maybe we can have a short tournament with the winning teams. That is the only way to do it.”