FIFA will wait until June to decide whether to expand the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to 48 teams, but we all know where this is probably headed.
Fans see a diluted competition and logistical chaos. FIFA sees money.
The tournament already is set to grow by 50 percent — and add 16 matches — in 2026, when the vast lands of North America host the soccer spectacle. So the idea of a larger format four years ahead of schedule did not fall out of the sky.
By proceeding, however, soccer’s gluttonous leaders, led by President Gianni Infantino, would have to go beyond borders to find at least one more host country and two additional stadiums.
It would become another adjustment to an already flawed decision, which has been marred by corruption allegations in the bidding process, well-documented labor abuses involving migrants building the Qatari stadiums, date changes (November-December instead of June-July) to avoid searing summer temperatures and a tighter match calendar (28 days instead of 32) to reduce the impact on European league schedules.
Qatar — smaller than Connecticut in size and Kansas in population — has been preparing eight stadiums for what is supposed to be a 32-team, 64-game World Cup, the first in the Middle East. But with the peninsula stretched to its limits, FIFA would have to explore the region for help staging the event.
Shared tournaments are difficult enough among friendly countries cooperating over years in both the bidding and execution process — the United States, Mexico and Canada will stage the World Cup in 2026. With Qatar, political issues stand in the way of a natural solution.
Two years ago, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — the only country sharing a border with Qatar — severed diplomatic, economic and travel relations, claiming Qatar supports terrorism and has cozy ties with Iran. Qatar has adamantly rejected those charges.
Without the easing of those policies, FIFA said it would not consider any of those countries for World Cup matches.
Realistically, that would leave Kuwait and Oman, both within two hours by jet. Kuwait City boasts one major stadium (60,000 capacity), while Oman’s capital, Muscat, has a midsize venue for consideration (34,000).
Two Saudi stadiums accommodate at least 60,000, and two in the UAE hold 40,000-plus. FIFA generally requires at least 40,000 for the tournament’s group stage.
With so many reasons to leave things as they stand, FIFA seems to be going to extraordinary efforts to make expansion happen at the June 3-5 meetings in Paris.
Why? A 79-page feasibility study commissioned by FIFA showed a bigger World Cup would deliver a financial windfall of up to $400 million from TV and marketing rights and ticket sales.
Infantino also sees diplomatic reasons.
“If football can contribute to open up some doors and to make people meet and discuss with each other,” he said, “we will not solve all the problems of the world, but maybe we’ll get a little step closer in at least starting to understand each other a bit.”
Infantino seems to have his eye on the Nobel Peace Prize. Don’t be surprised if he also backs a South Korean proposal to share the 2023 Women’s World Cup with North Korea. (Australia, Colombia, South Africa and Japan also have expressed interest.)
Qatari organizers say they remain open to the idea of potential expansion, but you have to wonder whether sharing matches with another country — years after they were the lone selection — would bruise their pride.
Without Qatar’s support, FIFA said, expansion will not go forward.
In a statement, Qatari organizers said: “It has always been our mission to ensure that this World Cup belongs to the entire Arab world and the Middle East. We will work with FIFA to determine whether or not a viable operating model does exist and, importantly, whether it is in the best interests for football and for the tournament, and for Qatar as the host nation.”
Expanding the field in 2026 was not well received by most fans around the world: less intrigue in regional qualifying, more ho-hum pairings in the first round and odd, three-team groups.
It’s hard to look at sped-up expansion for 2022 as anything more than FIFA accelerating its real favorite sport: making money.
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