KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The political game-playing is over: the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar will continue to feature 32 national teams and not the 48 which FIFA president Gianni Infantino had dangled tantalisingly in front of the international federation’s 211 member associations.
Late Wednesday night a statement from FIFA confirmed a decision to stick with 32 and not rush the expansion which will take effect in 2026 in the United States, Mexico and Canada.
A decision on possible expansion and inclusion of an extra co-host was due to have been taken by the FIFA Council and recommended to congress in Paris on June 5. But the impossibility of containing the issue appears to have forced FIFA’s hand.
Organising officials in Qatar had always insisted, diplomatically, that expansion was a decision for FIFA to take alone. However, with only four years to go, it had become obvious that it was too late for the Gulf state to rush infratructural changes for any more than 32 teams.
Already tourism experts are pondering how Qatar will manage to provide the full range of accommodation needed by the thousands of fans who will flood in.
The FIFA statement said:
In line with the conclusions of the feasibility study approved by the FIFA Council at its last meeting, FIFA and Qatar have jointly explored all possibilities to increase the number of participant teams from 32 to 48 teams by involving neighbouring countries at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
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.
Additionally, FIFA and Qatar have once again explored the feasibility of Qatar hosting a 48-team tournament by in particular lowering certain key FIFA requirements.
A joint analysis, in this respect, concluded that 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.
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ will therefore remain as originally planned with 32 teams and no proposal will be submitted at the next FIFA Congress on 5 June.
Infantino, with the supportive encouragement initially of the South American confederation CONMEBOL, had floated the idea of a 48-team tournament two years ago. The idea was popular with national associations in Africa and Asia, envisaging an increase in their slots at the finals.
Only European associations, already angered at the prospect of domestic chaos being created by the winter scheduling, were critical.
Infantino’s pursuit of re-election at congress in Paris in June was assisted by his apparent willingness to consider expansion in 2022 but the deadline for rival candidacies has long since passed and he is sure of a further four years in power.
Hence the decision to stay with 32 teams will not affect his re-election one way or another.
FIFA had created a taskforce, under the leadership of joint deputy secretary-general Zvonimir Boban, to study the expansion options. The panel came up with five possible cohosts but Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were out of the question because of their antagonistic relationship with Qatar.
That left Kuwait and Oman, neither of them currently boasting the necessary venue capacity.
Also, there was no prospect that any of Qatar’s neighours would embrace the regulations enforced for World Cup-specific construction workers after heavy pressure from international pressure groups and unions.
Hint from Boban
Boban dropped a heavy hint that 48 teams was a bridge too far in a Q-and-A sessions with this writer at AIPS Congress in Lausanne in January.
He explained then: “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 [political] issues into play.
“Also, 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?”
Qatar, thus far, has ‘delivered’ two of the eight promised stadia with two more due to follow later this year. All should be ready by 2021 at the latest.