FIFA has confirmed it will formally discuss expanding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from 32 to 48 teams at its pre-Russia 2018 congress on June 13 in Moscow.
FIFA’s council unanimously approved a plan to add 16 more teams to the World Cup from 2026 onwards in January 2017 but the federation’s president Gianni Infantino is keen to bring that expansion forward.
Infantino attended a meeting of the South American confederation CONMEBOL in Buenos Aires last month, when the idea to expand Qatar 2022 first emerged.
Speaking to reporters at that meeting, Infantino described the South American proposal as “very interesting” and worthy of serious study, and restated his commitment to enlarging the World Cup “for the development of football”.
Now, five weeks later, the agenda for the 68th FIFA Congress at Moscow’s Expocentre has been published and it lists, under item 12.2, the discussion of the CONMEBOL proposal “to carry out a feasibility study on the increase of the number of teams from 32 to 48 in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar”.
CONMEBOL’s interest in the matter is obvious, as expansion means six of its 10 members will be guaranteed World Cup slots, and expanding the World Cup is a key part of Infantino’s strategy for re-election as FIFA president next year.
The Qataris, however, are understood to be strongly opposed to the plan, as it will increase the pressure they are already under to share the tournament with neighbouring states.
Concerned about costs and the obvious legacy risk of white elephants, Qatar 2022’s organisers have scaled back their stadium plan from 12 venues to eight – four fewer than FIFA has told the two bids for 2026 they need to build for a 48-team tournament, which will feature 80 games.
With Qatar 2022 already moved to the winter to avoid the country’s oppressive summer heat, it is scheduled for only 28 days between November 21 and December 18, which for a 48-team tournament would be nearly three games a day and each venue staging a game every third day.
Sharing an expanded World Cup with the likes of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates would appear to be the logical solution, particularly as Qatar’s bid for the tournament was based on it being a World Cup for the Middle East.
That sentiment, however, vanished long ago and Qatar is currently embroiled in a bitter diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and several other countries.
This row has left Qatar almost friendless in the region and ramped up its already significant building costs for World Cup-related infrastructure.
Qatar has desperately tried to keep sole control of its prize asset but football politics may now force the tiny but wealthy Arab state to share.
As well as the usual reports and roll calls, the main item on the agenda at congress is the choice between the joint bid from Canada, Mexico and the United States and the bid from Morocco for the 2026 World Cup.
All of FIFA’s member associations, bar the bidding nations and anyone else with a conflict of interest, will vote on that for the first time, with the winner needing a straight majority.